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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 5 – Al McFadyen

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

My name is Al McFadyen. I am a senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Leeds. In my academic work, I write (and teach) mainly around themes related to theological anthropology – which is to say, Christian understanding of humanity. I am especially drawn towards those often complex and ambiguous situations where humanity is threatened, vulnerable, at risk or somehow in question and so drawn therefore also to institutionalised practices that attempt to engage human beings in difficulty, often equally ambiguous and complex. I have always felt the need to ground my academic work and understanding by working also in non-academic contexts alongside the university (psychiatric nursing; suicide counselling; youth work; policing) in a kind of triangulation between academy, church and the diverse ways of living out humanity in the ‘real world’.  In this triangulation, I am hoping to find mutually enriched understanding and wisdom about what it means to be human in situations where humanity itself is at some risk. To put that theologically, I am trying to work out what it means (and why it might be worth trying) to speak of Christian faith, of sin and salvation, of good news, in situations such of human vulnerability.

 

How does your research or your work connect to activism?

I am hesitant to describe the sorts of things I do under the heading of activism. And I suspect others will be too, since what I do looks very different from the range of involvements that generally go under that heading. I spend on average over 60 hours a month working as a frontline police officer (unpaid), often working single crewed answering emergency calls; calls that take me to places where often someone is or has been made vulnerable, and sometimes where I will act in ways that also make someone vulnerable by using force against them or depriving them of their liberty in order to bring them to justice. I appreciate working in the police might be regarded as the opposite of what activism might mean. However, policing in the UK is one of the places where you will find institutionalised practices and nuanced understanding of some of the concerns that motivate many activists: gender-based violence; the cultures and processes that aid the creation, maintenance and exploitation of gendered vulnerabilities; hate crime, including those based on racism and homophobia; human trafficking; child sexual exploitation; community cohesion; the precarity of asylum seekers; radicalisation (including white right wing), violent extremism and terrorism (Leeds is where the 7/7 bombs were made, a short walk from the University).

I first wrote extensively on child sexual abuse almost 20 years ago (in my book, Bound to Sin), before I joined the police. Working in the police has both developed and further grounded my understanding of these and other situations where humanity is at risk. These have included work (not all of it published) on counter-terrorism; faith-based community engagement; street grooming for sexual exploitation; loving enemies & loving the neighbourhood. Most recently, I have written on the just introduced offence of coercive control, which is to appear in a book that has grown out of Shiloh-related work: namely, the ‘Feminism and Trauma Theology’ project. My contribution has the title, ‘”I Breathe him in with Every Breath I Take”: Framing Domestic Victimisation as Trauma and Coercive Control in Feminist Trauma Theologies’ and it will be published in February in Karen O’Donnell & Katie Cross (eds), Feminist Trauma Theologies.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

Organisations like the police effect change for people in often incomplete, messy and ambiguous ways and sometimes can’t do much more than stave off the immediate risk and crisis or create a space where a victim and offender might make decisions that could have positive life-changing consequences. I suppose I am committed to the ideas that much valuable humanizing transformation happens like that and at that small, face-to-face human scale. It’s not a scale that is always taken with appropriate seriousness by academics or policy makers and maybe also not always by activists. (Nor are the fallible, all too human institutions that we have available to make change or to support the conditions that enable human flourishing become reality.) And I am afraid neither are the people – extraordinary in their ordinariness – that work in those institutions – nurses; bobbies; firefighters; paramedics; council staff – making neighbourhoods work as places that might be habitable spaces for flourishing human diversity. We need somehow to help students gain a sense of the importance of commitment to and working in and with such institutions, alongside the importance of more abstract ideas and values that can shape policy and more conventional notions of activism.

What I hope to achieve between now and the next 16 days of activism in 2020 is similarly scaled. I hope I can make a difference to some of the people I will deal with. I hope that I won’t mess up, especially by failing to identify and assess risk appropriately. Domestic incidents are the ones where the difference between an incident that seems superficially to be trivial and one that will prove fatal in absence of decisive intervention is not always clear. They are also amongst the most volatile and unpredictable. So, I also hope that I don’t get seriously injured. Since the last 16 days, I have been assaulted several times on duty, though without anything more than a very minor injury.

But I also hope to do some further work and thinking reflecting theologically on policing, including domestic violence.

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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 4 – Joyce Boham

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Today’s activist is Joyce Boham of the Talitha Qumi Institute of Women in Religion and Culture in Legon, Ghana. You can read her earlier contribution to the Shiloh Project here and watch an interview with both Joyce and Mercy Oduyoye here.

 

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

My name is Joyce Boham and I am Manager of the Institute of Women in Religion and Culture, Trinity Theological Seminary (Legon, Ghana).

Born to Thomas Yamoah (of blessed memory) and Essie Ewusiwa Yamoah, a retired midwife, in the early 1970s, I am the fourth of five children. I am married to a Ghanaian building engineer and blessed with four children: three girls and a boy. Growing up in the 1970s was characterised by community living: your children belonged to just you as long as they were in your stomach; after birth, they were the responsibility of the whole community who collectively ensured that children would become good citizens. Our home always had a minimum of four cousins in it at any one time and other people, too, who were not relatives but just enjoyed the lively company. The issue of rape never came up for me while growing up, mostly because any discussions of sex was forbidden until puberty; then our grandmother (the wife of a Methodist minister) would give us a long lecture on sex education. These lectures were quite frightful as most of the discussion centred on getting pregnant – even if you just talked to boys.

I remember my grandmother giving me an egg and saying, “eat it; do not bite into it. You will have many children.” The egg was the symbol for fertility. The belief was that a girl would have many children when married if she did not bite into the egg. That was the ice breaker for my first lesson on sex! My grandmother then said, “if any boy looks at you in a ‘funny’ way, that is a gesture of interest; if he smiles or tells you that he loves you, RUN, RUN, RUN far from him, run to the house. When you see him coming from east, run north; when he comes from the south, run to the east. If you speak to him or he touches you even your hands, you will get pregnant, then you will have to stop going to school and join the workers on your grandfather’s cocoa farm.” As funny as it may sound to me now, that was caution enough against boys and men at the time. Her strategy was to protect us, as she did not have the voice or strength to fight the oppressor (abusive men, harmful cultural and social factors). What my grandmother did not consider was that this was a caution also against boys who were civil; being left alone with any boy was to be avoided. Also, she warned us about boys, not considering the possibility of men who might feel entitled to our bodies, even though we were young girls.

The story is different today. I have to teach my children to be cautious regarding both men and boys. Alongside receiving quite comprehensive and age-appropriate sex education from me, they also have discussions on the topic with friends and they consult the internet. I had to tell them that even though their bodies are God-given and they are entitled to wear what they please, there are some people out there who feel entitled to violate them just because they can and have the power. Moreover, when something awful happens there is inadequate support. I struggled to answer these questions from my daughters: “Do we not have laws that prohibit that?”, “Where is the police?”, “Mummy, don’t these people go to church? What is the church doing?”

I struggled to explain that while the laws on paper are protective, the wider culture and the social structures, in some cases even the family, will not protect them adequately. I struggled to explain that though Ghana subscribes to the Sustainable Development Goals, including Goal 5 (pertaining to gender equality) and Goal 10 (aimed at addressing inequality more widely) the reality is that our wider society does not reflect that women are entitled to full human dignity and human rights. I had to tell them that they have to try to protect themselves and each other. And, as was handed down to me, I said to them, “SPEAK! FOR YOU HAVE A TONGUE IN YOUR MOUTH.”

 

How does your research or your work connect to activism?

Since completing my undergraduate degree, I have worked as a liaison for The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, a gender-centred, interreligious, interdisciplinary, intersectional and transformative association of African women. The work of the Circle, as we call it, is to carry out academic research on issues relating to religion and culture, to investigate how they affect women’s lives and how they can be interpreted for the empowerment of women and their communities. I am currently responsible for the Anglophone West Africa zone.

My role as the Anglophone West Africa Coordinator is to encourage our member countries (Ghana, Nigeria and English-speaking Cameroon) to take a closer look at the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and advocate on issues that concern us as a sub-region. SDGs 5 and 10 (focused on achieving equality) apply directly to issues that underpin our work, but we are also concerned about the environment (SDG 13) and quality education (SDG 4). Focus on both is essential to empowering ourselves and to taking part at the decision-making tables in our various communities. Issues like poverty, hunger, lack of basic education, lack of affordable housing, unavailability of jobs and many other factors also contribute immensely to women’s vulnerability and are, therefore, part of the discussion on rape. It is important to note that rape has damaging and distressing impact not only on the physical body, but also on emotional, academic and psychological wellbeing. The Circle intends to continue promoting research and publications by African women theologians, as well as to keep calling institutions with power to action on behalf of women.

I have also worked for the Institute of Women in Religion and Culture, a multi-faith educational project established in 1998 to advocate for the urgent need for gender sensitivity and gender justice in all issues concerning women in Ghana. The Institute works primarily through public education. Currently, I am the Manager and the Institute is based in the grounds of Trinity Theological Seminary (Legon, Ghana). We work to ensure gender sensitivity among seminarians and we advocate for a violence-free society where my daughters are free to be girls and unencumbered to contribute their quota to the development of the country without fear. We have worked on a range of women’s concerns encompassing harmful traditional practices, women’s health, women’s economic development, women’s empowerment, trafficking, and advocacy for the recognition of the humanity and human rights of all women. We work with women who are opinion leaders in their communities, religious spaces, basic and high schools, and universities and we also partner with the media and with Non-Governmental Organisations. But our work at the Institute is crucial especially for the women at the grassroots. The publications of the Circle, often produced in collaboration with opinion leaders, are not only for those able to read and interpret them. At the Institute we also take these publications and present them (in workshops for instance) in ways that non-academic and also non-literate women in the rural areas or communities can learn from. Our Queen Mothers who wield much influence as opinion leaders in their respective communities fulfil an important role in our work. The Institute also works with churches (charismatic, Pentecostal, and mainline churches), women’s rights groups, as well as various Muslim women’s groups to find out about, discuss and address the issues that affect their lives. We involve also the next generation of women and men (primary and high school children and university students) in our work.

 

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

Just about four months ago, the whole country was outraged about the government of Ghana’s new policy on Comprehensive Sexuality Education. This policy proposed that sex education will be taught at all school levels beginning from first grade. It was interesting to watch how church leaders, irrespective of denomination, from charismatic to orthodox churches, as well as the Chief Imam, the leader of the Muslim community of Ghana, and also teachers and head teachers, many parents, the media, businessmen and women, the urban and rural men and women, all rose up against it. This united outrage stirred up questions in me: Why is the Church and why are all these other groups not on the streets with anger and outrage about the increasing number of rape cases? Why are countless cases of violence against women taking place all over the country and there is comparatively little said about it? Most of the so-called defilement cases involve girls living in the slums. Are our leaders quiet because they think rape of impoverished women does not matter? Is rape considered simply inevitable, or trivial? Is rape less offensive than sex education for grade one children? Why does the issue of rape not stir up the same anger as the prospect of sex education?

There is so much happening that needs fixing. Some children are raped and killed; others are raped and silenced with fear of death or misplaced social judgement when they disclose the identity of the perpetrators. This was worsened by the BBC coverage of the issue of ‘sex for grades’ in Ghana and Nigeria with the main defence from Ghana being that it was a plot to smear the country’s name. Much of the blame landed on the victims.

In this country rape is still taboo and rarely spoken about. When it is, then usually behind closed doors. Even when brave souls dare to bring the case into public forums, the identity of the perpetrators is protected. Many are the anonymous stories of rape and abuse that affirm the reality that trusted and often publicly respected individuals – teachers, lecturers, fathers, uncles, pastors, house helps – are perpetrating this violence. And often the victims have either been silenced for fear of further victimisation or for the sake of protecting their family name.

But there is also the bold decision of Elizabeth Ohene, a prominent journalist, BBC columnist and former government minister, who told her story about how she was sexually abused at the age of just seven years old and raped at the age of eleven, more than sixty years ago (in 1952). Ohene speaks of the physical, emotional and psychological effects this violence had on her and also of the “scandalous acceptance of the sexual molestation of children in our society as part of life”. Ohene’s open account won her much support and admiration but she also had friends who were puzzled and even angered at her decision to go public. To them, she should have taken her pain and suffering to the grave; after all, she had suffered it in private for more than sixty years. This drew my attention, however, to the fact that silence is no longer an option. It never was but now that the silence has been broken, we need to turn our voices into action for change.

It is time to speak up as loudly as we can and to work with the media about the menace of rape in our society. Sexual violence has settled itself into the very fabric of our society, feeding on our culture. But we have been given the responsibility by God not to just pass through this world as spectators but to contribute our share to making our world better. It is important that we continue to speak about these issues to holler our outrage and remind society at large and the generation after us that our shared humanity is a gift from God. It is important that we continue to empower our women. It is important to continue to nurture our daughters and to impress on them that they are not responsible for the crimes committed against them.

It is my hope that the Institute, with the help of stakeholders, will be able to provide public education to effectively address and eliminate violence against women and girls. In doing so, we will continue to question the role of the church in these issues.

Let me finish with some of my writings on the topic of sexual abuse.

 

WHEN THE TELLING ITSELF IS A TABOO: SPEAKING OUT AGAINST SEXUAL AND GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE.

  • It is Thursday in Black and my heart bleeds for all those women and girls, made in the image of God, who have endured sexual violence and cannot speak, because telling of being raped is itself a taboo. It is black Thursday and I stand in solidarity with those who are suffering quietly as victims of rape and of stigma.

 

  • My heart bleeds for the countless young children who are raped daily by their teachers, who shamefully violate the responsibility they are entrusted with. I stand in solidarity with the girls who are raped by relatives who are supposed to love and protect them, just as Christ loved and protected “The Church”. Where, I ask, is these girls’ refuge? I cry with all girls and boys who are raped. Where shall they turn?

 

  • Who will come to the rescue of the street girls who are raped – made so vulnerable by their poverty?

 

  • Who will speak for the countless women who are raped by their abusive husbands? Where is their refuge? Who is their hope, shield and fortress? Where is the Church? How my heart bleeds.

 

  • Its Thursdays in Black and I ask, where are the girls who were kidnapped in Takoradi? Are they forgotten so soon? My heart bleeds for the world we are leaving for the generation after us.

 

  • We shall refuse to keep quiet over the rape and violence that is stalking our homes, communities, public and private institutions. Do not be afraid to speak out for fear of being branded a bad girl, or for fear of dying as threatened by your rapist.

 

  • Though it may ring in your mind, we are here to help you yell it out. We shall yell together. Speak, for you are human with a tongue in your mouth.

 

  • Speak out, for the Church with a commandment to be a refuge for its people is YOU. Until we begin to shout it out together, sexual and gender-based violence will not stop.
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UN 16 Days of Activism: Day 2 – Gordon Lynch

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

I currently work as the Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent. I’ve been an academic at different universities for nearly twenty-five years now (that time’s gone very quickly…!) and over that time my work has crossed over a number of disciplines including sociology, history and practical theology.

Although my research has been on quite an eclectic set of issues, a fundamental interest I’ve had through this work is on what values shape people’s lives and the role that moral meanings play in society. Over the past eight years, I’ve become increasingly interested in issues of historic abuse, particularly in how abuse took place in welfare initiatives that were ostensibly seen as morally defensible in the past. Part of what I’ve learned through that process is to recognise how welfare interventions like the industrial school system in Ireland or native residential boarding schools in Canada weren’t necessarily seen as morally unproblematic in the past, but that these systems carried on for a range of reasons despite knowledge of their failings. Recognising this is important. Sometimes organisations look at histories of institutional abuse in their work and argue that this took place in the context of well-intentioned initiatives that were simply less enlightened than today’s standards. The reality is often more complex and more uncomfortable than that.

Over the past seven years, I’ve become increasingly involved in researching the history of British child migration schemes that sent around 100,000 children to other parts of the British Empire and Commonwealth between 1869 and 1970. These schemes were often funded by British and overseas governments, but run by leading charities and major churches. I’m particularly interested in the schemes which operated in the post-war period which ran increasingly against the grain of progressive child-care thinking of that time, and in understanding the institutional and policy factors which made that possible.

How does your research or your work connect to activism?
I’m really interested in how we can take academic research on institutional abuse and make it accessible to different public audiences. I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in a number of projects along these lines. In 2014, I worked with researchers in Ireland and the digital channel TrueTube to put together a film on women’s experiences of life in Magdalene Laundries in Ireland. I’ve co-curated a national exhibition about the history of British child migration at the V&A Museum of Childhood, and learned a lot through that about how objects and images can be presented in ways that make people more aware of complex and emotionally difficult histories. As a spin-off project from that exhibition, I was able to work with the production company 7digital to commission a number of leading British folk musicians who created a collection of songs, ‘The Ballads of Child Migration’ which has been released as an album and been performed at different venues around the country. I see part of this work – particularly in relation to the child migration schemes – as raising awareness of a history that’s not always well known. Another part of that is trying to think about what the factors are that give rise to institutional abuse, some of which might still be relevant today.

More recently I’ve become involved in supporting the work of two national child abuse Inquiries which have looked at the historic abuse of British child migrants as an expert witness. Working with another colleague, Stephen Constantine, we spent most of a year doing archival research that informed the report on British child migration by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. I learned more through that work about how historical research can go beyond just providing context for public investigations into historic abuse to develop more forensic analysis of archival sources which helps to show how and why systems of care failed. By looking at organisational correspondence and reports in Britain and Australia, for example, it was possible to piece together how the British Government had failed to put proper safeguards in place to ensure that standards of care for British child migrants were adequate.

Why is activism important to you and what do you hope to achieve between now and the 16 Days of 2020?

I came from a non-traditional background as a student and am always conscious – despite the pressures of modern academic life – of the considerable resources we still have in our universities. I’ve always thought that our research should be put to the service of wider communities and that this work should feed back into how we think our academic disciplines should be cultivated and taught.

I’ve been working with the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry over the past year and the work I’ve done with them is going to come into the public domain next spring (so can’t talk about it much yet, unfortunately!) – but I hope that will take forward a bit further some of our understanding of the circumstances in which British child migrants were abused. I think there’s a growing critical mass of people doing very important work on religion and abuse across a range of settings and I want to continue to think about how I can best support that. I’m also going to start publishing work more specifically on historic abuse of child migrants sent overseas by the Catholic Church and (hopefully) the Church of England which will hopefully be available over the next year. More ideas are the pipeline as well…

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Religion and Gender Journal: Call for Manuscripts for Special Issue on Religion, Gender and Violence

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Religion and Gender Journal

Call for Manuscripts for Special Issue on Religion, Gender and Violence

The journal Religion and Gender invites article proposals for a special issue on Religion, Gender and Violence. The relationship between religion and violence is highly contested and has come under considerable scrutiny by scholars of religion.  Less understood is the relationship between gender, religion and violence and this special issue aims to contribute to understandings of the ways in which religion intersects with institutional, familial and public gendered violence as explored through current research via an interdisciplinary lens.

With the current roll out of public inquiries into institutional child sexual abuse across Ireland, England and Wales, Scotland, Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, it is clear that at a global level, it is religious organizations that have had the most widespread and highest levels of abuse against children with characteristically poor institutional responses to victims and their families. Public inquires have clearly established that religious organizations made strategic decisions to limit reputational damage at the cost of child safety and the implications of this for religious institutions is yet to be fully understood.

Violence against women and children in domestic settings where religion is a significant factor has also been the subject of ongoing and recent research indicating that there are specific issues at play for women and children in experiencing and reporting abuse and how it is managed by faith traditions. In important public debates on the status of gender diversity and difference, for example the marriage equality issue, there have been forceful responses to vulnerable cohorts from religious leaders, in social media and religious publications.

At the same time, there has been an important counter discourse articulated by religious groups around building religious and social capital that contributes to a pluralist understanding of the value of multi-religious societies and gender diversity. These discourses, most often articulated by more liberal religious groups but also increasingly by mainstream faith traditions, utilize the language of social justice and theological interpretation to construct narratives of gender inclusion and equity. This brings faith traditions into conflict within themselves over the framing of gender relations for the new century.

For this special issue, we invite manuscripts that address this convergence from a variety of perspectives on the function and meaning of gender, religion and violence and its counter-discourses.

The editors are particularly interested in receiving manuscripts that showcase empirical research that address, but are not limited to, the following areas and/or questions:

o What role does gendered violence play in mainstream religious groups re maintenance of the faith tradition?
o How are the impacts and experiences of gendered violence managed by religious organisations with regard to pastoral care and processes of remediation?
o Who are the victims of gendered violence in religious organisations?
o In what ways can feminist theory and theology contribute to and expand understandings of religion, gender and violence?
o What role does non-religion and/or secularity play in relation to responding to and managing the disclosure of violence in religious organisations.
o How well do public inquiries address gendered religious violence and what are the impacts on religious organisations with respect to particular case studies?

Submissions should be between 5000 and 8000 words in length (including abstract, footnotes and references). See Brill’s page for further information on submitting an article https://brill.com/view/journals/rag/rag-overview.xml Affiliation and email address should be supplied in the first submission. In order to guarantee a blind review process, all submissions should be anonymized with the name of and references to the author removed from the text. We are happy to receive inquiries about prospective submissions.

Please send all queries to the special issues editors:

Kathleen McPhillips, University of Newcastle, Australia

Email: Kathleen.mcphillips@newcastle.edu.au

Sarah-Jane Page, Aston University, Birmingham, UK

Email: s.page1@aston.ac.uk

SUBMISSION DATES

15 January 2020: Abstract Submission

15 August 2020: Full manuscript submission

 

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Resistant Readings: John MacArthur’s Homophobic Theology

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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.

References

Baden, Joel. “What Use Is the Bible?” Video, 19:52. Posted by The Nantucket Project, March 28, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIXfDyoYK8Q&t=16s

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. https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/90-449/homosexuality-and-the-campaign-for-immorality

Grace to You. “John MacArthur.” Accessed October 26, 2019. https://www.gty.org/about/john

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. http://queergrace.com/sodom/.

 

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

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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: institute@stpaulscathedral.org.uk

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

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

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

 

Nga mihi tena koutou katoa – Greetings everyone

No Ōtautahi ahau  – I am from Christchurch

Ko Opawaho te awa – The Opawa is my river

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

Ko Fay tōku whaea – Fay is my mother

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

Ko Daphne Gracie tāku ingoa – I am Daphne Gracie

No reira tena koutou katoa – Greetings to you

I want to give voice to past and present stories.

The present stories are from the places I work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: D Marsden

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

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

Image: D. Marsden

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

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

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

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

Image: D. Marsden

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

Image: D. Marsden

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

Image: D. Marsden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you prayed about the problem? 

Have you forgiven him? 

How have you contributed to the conflict? 

Have you been a good witness or example? 

Have you been submissive? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me share another woman’s story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Institute focuses on areas including but not limited to: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Shiloh Project Visits Legabibo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Legabibo

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

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

Legabibo also promotes and practises integrity, transparency and accountability.

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

 

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