Special Lecture: Professor David Tombs and Dr Jayme Reaves ‘#MeToo Jesus’


Book your place here.

In January 2018 Professor David Tombs will visit SIIBS and deliver a special Shiloh Project lecture on ‘#MeToo Jesus’ with Dr Jayme Reaves.

Professor Tombs is the Howard Paterson Chair of Theology and Public Issues, at the University of Otago, Aotearoa New Zealand. He has a longstanding interest in contextual and liberation theologies and is author of Latin American Liberation Theologies (Brill, 2002). His current research focusses on religion violence and peace and especially on Christian responses to gender-based violence, sexual abuse and torture.

He is originally from the United Kingdom and previously worked at the University of Roehampton in London (1992-2001), and then in Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin (2001-2014) on a conflict resolution and reconciliation programme. He has degrees in theology from Oxford (BA/MA, 1987), Union Theological Seminary New York (STM, 1988), and London (PhD 2004), and in philosophy (MA London, 1993).


Dr Jayme R. Reaves is a public theologian with 20 years experience working on the intersections between theology, peace, conflict, gender, and culture in the US, Former Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland, and Great Britain. Her book, Safeguarding the Stranger: An Abrahamic Theology and Ethic of Protective Hospitality is available from Wipf & Stock or any book retailer. You can find out more at

Jayme’s social media links are:
Twitter: @jaymereaves


#MeToo Jesus: Why Naming Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse Matters

2pm, 16 January, G.03 Jessop West, University of Sheffield

Jayme Reaves and David Tombs

Image: Michelangelo’s Santo Spirito Crucifix, Florence. Photo by Alexandra Korey.
© Used with kind permission.

The #MeToo hashtag and campaign created by Tarana Burke in 2007 and popularized by Alyssa Milano in October 2017 has confirmed what feminists have long argued on the prevalence of sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexually abusive behaviour. It has also prompted a more public debate on dynamics of victim blaming and victim shaming which contribute to the silences which typically benefit perpetrators and add a further burden to survivors. As such, the #MeToo movement raises important questions for Christian faith and theology. A church in New York offered a creative response in a sign which adapted Jesus’ words ‘You did this to me’ in Mt 25:40 to read ‘You did this to #MeToo’. This presentation will explore the biblical and theological reasons for naming Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse drawing on earlier work presenting crucifixion as a form of state terror and sexual abuse (Tombs 1999). It will then discuss some of the obstacles to this recognition and suggest why the acknowledgement nonetheless matters. It will argue that recognition of Jesus as victim of sexual abuse can help strengthen church responses to sexual abuses and challenge tendencies within the churches, as well as in wider society, to collude with victim blaming or shaming.

For further reading, see David Tombs, ‘Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse’ in Union Seminary Quarterly Review (1999).

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More Grant Success for The Shiloh Project


The Shiloh project directors, Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland), Katie Edwards (University of Sheffield) and Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds), are co-investigators of a successful Worldwide Universities Network research development grant with the University of Ghana.

Katie Edwards and Johanna Stiebert will visit the University of Ghana in 2018. Stay tuned for more updates on the project!

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16 Days of Activism – Day 15: Dawn Llewellyn

Dawn Llewellyn

On Day 15, the penultimate day of the 16 Days of Activism, we talk to Dawn Llewellyn, Senior Lecturer in Christian Studies at the University of Chester.

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

I’m Dawn and I am Senior Lecturer in Christian Studies, in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester –  I’ve been here for 7 years since finishing my PhD in Religious Studies at Lancaster in 2010. I teach and supervise in the areas of gender and religion, sociology of religion, gender studies, and qualitative methodologies and methods. My work is grounded in feminist qualitative approaches to the study of gender and Christianity: I’ve researched women’s religious reading practices and cultures in relation to literature and the Bible; I’ve also written on feminist generations, third wave feminism, the wave metaphor, and the disciplinary disconnections between feminist/women’s/gender studies and religion.

I’m currently examining women’s reproductive agency in Christianity. In particular, my research focuses on women’s  narratives of choice toward motherhood or elective childlessness, and how women mediate and experience the pronatalism circulating through doctrine, scriptures, teachings and the everyday social practices of church life (no surprise, there’s *quite* a lot of pronatalism for women to mediate).

What’s your involvement with The Shiloh Project?

I was delighted and honoured to be asked to become a member when the Shiloh project began. It’s such an important conversation that Katie, Johanna, and Caroline and the team have brought to the fore because religious discourses do inscribe and re-inscribe the inequalities underlying gendered violence and rape culture.

At the moment, I’m very good at tweeting and retweeting about the Shiloh Project and SIIBS, and I have promised to write a piece for the blog! I’m really excited to be part of the work the Project is doing and will do.

How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?

As a feminist researcher in religious studies, I try in my teaching and research to analyse the ways religion, particularly Christianity, generates gendered injustice, and in particular, how women  mediate and negotiate patriarchal and androcentric religious structures. In my previous project, I interviewed Christian and ‘post’ Christian women about the literatures that inspired and resourced their faith and spiritual identities. In the interviews, the women also discussed their biblical reading practices and disclosed their anger at the passages they understood to valorize violence against women.  For some participants, this meant they left Christianity or at least turned to women’s writing as a substitute for the Bible – unable to read texts or belong to a tradition that sacralizes narratives that demean women. For others, they resist and reject the text they found problematic. Interrogating how women engage with the biblical texts, and Christian teachings, doctrines and practices is central to my research and teaching.

 How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today? 

Rape culture and ideology can be insidious; that’s part of its power. One way to dismantle its power and the shame and guilt it perpetuates is to name it, as we saw with #MeToo. During that campaign, I was really struck, moved, and enraged by the shared stories of my friends and colleagues who had experienced harassment in academia: at conferences, in meetings, when travelling, and at University or departmental social events. It was also painful to see how many social media posts by women about #MeToo started with a line or two saying that they didn’t think what they’d experienced was ‘serious’ enough to warrant mentioning; and the media backlash against those testimonies reveals, again, the prominence of gendered violence and its acceptance.  In a secularizing society like the UK, in which religion has lost some of its influence for individuals, communities and institutions, it is too easy and simplex to think that religion no longer shapes cultural norms. The work that the Shiloh Project does – the blogs, the lectures, the projects, the seminars, the research – is important research that uncovers religion’s role in constructing and supporting rape culture.

What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?

The project’s themes and aims are helping me think more critically about motherhood and rape culture. Just as Christianity’s essentialist ideas about women’s bodies limit their roles to the maternal, essentialist ideas underpin sexual domination and violence. Generally, though, I’m looking forward to potential joint projects and questions that are already emerging, to being part of a such a fantastic initiative, and learning with and from such a fantastic bunch of scholars.

And I really need to write my blog piece…

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16 Days of Activism – Day 9: Valerie Hobbs

Valerie Hobbs

We interview Valerie Hobbs, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Sheffield, on the ninth day of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence campaign.

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

My name is Valerie Hobbs, and I am a linguist at the University of Sheffield. I am one of those scholars who likes to do all sorts of things, but most of my research and teaching orbits around the areas of English for Specific Purposes, with a focus on religious language. In other words, I’m interested in how different groups of people use language in ways that suit their particular needs and goals.

How did you get involved in The Shiloh Project?

Katie Edwards, a friend and colleague at Sheffield, invited me along to a workshop on religion and rape culture in Leeds, where I met Johanna Stiebert, Caroline Blyth, Nechama Hadari, Emma Nagouse, and Jessica Keady. What impressed me about this group was the balance they strive for and achieve between diversity of perspectives and singular focus on examining and confronting the ways in which religion is used to incite and validate violence towards women. This is a group of scholars who unite around a shared interest and purpose but who invite discussion. In my experience, this is rare.

How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?

A few years ago, I decided to take a break from work I was doing on language in philosophy and write a paper on a topic I’ve long been mulling over: how the conservative Christian church talks about feminism. This work prompted an invitation to attend the ecclesiastical trial of a pastor in the USA who refused to require his disabled wife to attend church. As a professing Christian, I was motivated by this experience to focus my work on issues that powerfully shape and affect religious women.

Since then, I have worked on, for example, Christian sermons on divorce, as a way to investigate the ways in which pastors (don’t) preach about domestic violence. Over the summer, I contributed a chapter based on this project to the series of volumes on Rape Culture and Religion, edited by Shiloh Project leaders Caroline Blyth and Katie Edwards along with Emily Colgan. I have plans for further projects on gender in sermons (since sermons are highly significant within the Christian context), but I’m also interested in hymns.

Then there is the activism that necessarily accompanies my scholarly work. I am grateful to have had opportunities to support Christian women who have endured various forms of violence by men in the church, including not only their spouses but also Christian leaders who too often use the Bible to minimize, excuse, and even justify physical and emotional abuse. Recent public-facing work stemming from these interactions has included, for example, a series on the ways in which church governments handle abuse cases. But I also spend time writing e-mails and letters and talking on the phone in an effort to support women whom men have abused.

How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today?

Faith and religion are an important source of identity and ideology for billions of people around the world. As a result, religious ideas are not confined to religious contexts but have made their way into all sorts of cultural contexts. Advertising, news media, and politics are just some of the places where we find traces of religion, and powerful players in society often deliberately draw on religion to attract followers.

In my view, one of The Shiloh Project’s most significant contributions to the discussion about gender activism are the ways in which it makes explicit these links between religion and cultural attitudes to gender roles. This involves examining the religious doctrine itself as well as how and where doctrine manifests itself in society. For example, the Shiloh Project’s Katie Edwards has done some ground-breaking work on the ways in which advertisers draw from the Creation account in Genesis and capitalize on common representations of Eve as seductress.

However, at the risk of sounding pessimistic, I think we must be modest in our ambitions to bring about change in society around us. While much work has been done on the issue of gender-based violence and discrimination, yet the problem persists and seems even more entrenched. We can easily grow discouraged. I’ve concluded that I must act on my convictions but resist being so arrogant as to think my work will even begin to fix what is wrong with the world. That runs counter to the message we get from academia these days, where we are encouraged to plan for and measure the impact of our research and rate our value accordingly. But I don’t believe impact is up to us. Instead, as I see it, at the heart of The Shiloh Project is simply this: love your neighbour. If society becomes any better as a result of anything we do, if we positively influence even one person who encounters our work, that is a great mercy.

What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?

I recently wrapped up my work on divorce sermons and hope to have another recently submitted paper on this project accepted for publication in the spring. I am now working on two other projects: language of discrimination in religious institutions and discourse of consent among popular Christian organizations. I’m also working on a proposal for a book which will draw on my work in these various areas. There is so much work to do and so little time! My Shiloh Project colleagues are doing all manner of funded projects, and it is inspiring to be surrounded by such driven academics.

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16 Days of Activism – Day 8: Emily Colgan

Emily Colgan

Our tenth interview to mark the 16 Days of Activism is from Emily Colgan.

Emily is a Lecturer in Theology at Trinity Theological College in Auckland, New Zealand. Her research focuses on the relationship between the Bible and contemporary social imaginaries, asking about the degree to which the ideologies contained within biblical texts continue to inform communities in the present. Emily is particularly interested in ecological representations in the Bible, as well as depictions of gender and violence. Emily has written chapters in Sexuality, Ideology and the Bible: Antipodean Engagements (Sheffield Phoenix, 2015), The Nature of Things: Rediscovering the Spiritual in God’s Creation (Wipf and Stock, 2016), The Bible and Art: Perspectives from Oceania (Bloomsbury, 2017), and The Oxford Handbook on Bible and Ecology (Oxford University, forthcoming). Most recently, Emily has co-edited a multi-volume work with Caroline Blyth and Katie Edwards entitled Rape Culture, Gender Violence, and Religion (Palgrave, forthcoming).


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

I’m Emily and I lecture in Biblical Studies and Theology at Trinity College in Auckland, New Zealand. In my research, I am interested in the relationship between the Bible and contemporary social imaginaries, particularly the degree to which the ideologies contained within biblical texts continue to inform communities in the present. My work to date has focused on ecological representations in the Bible, as well as depictions of gender and violence in this text.

What’s your involvement with The Shiloh Project?

I first heard about The Shiloh Project through my friend and colleague, Caroline Blyth. Together with Johanna Stiebert and Katie Edwards, Caroline established this hugely important project, creating an inclusive community which promotes research into the phenomenon of rape culture and religion. I was super keen to be part of this exciting initiative and so enthusiastically signed up as a member. I believe the work of this community extremely urgent and I feel very privileged to be involved.

How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?

 I have long been interested in feminist interpretation of the Bible, but my interest in rape culture, gender violence, and biblical texts really took shape as I wrote my doctoral dissertation. As part of my research I explored the sexual and gendered metaphor of land as woman in Jeremiah, arguing that this text encodes a sexual logic based upon a heterosexual binary which polarizes a masculine, penetrative God and a feminized, emasculated Land. The more I explored the Jeremianic rhetoric of rape, which relates to both women and land, the more I came to realise that this very same rhetoric continues to characterize discourse around women and land in the present day. From here I became acutely interested in the role of the Bible as a foundation upon which contemporary rape-supportive ideologies and belief systems are built.

Since then, I have had the privilege of working with Caroline Blyth and Katie Edwards on a multi-volume work entitled Rape Culture, Gender Violence, and Religion. These books draw together a wide variety of methodological approaches and hermeneutical lenses to critically explore the complex and multifaceted relationships that exist between gender violence and various religious traditions. My own research for this volume focused on rape culture, gender violence, and evangelical Christian self-help literature. Although this was a completely new area of exploration for me, I found it fascinating (and deeply troubling) and would love to do more sustained work in this area.

How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today?

Given the horrific levels of gender violence in societies around the world, and the all-pervasive presence of rape cultures that sustain such violence, the task of The Shiloh Project to interrogate and disrupt rape-supportive discourse, particularly in the context of religion, is an incredibly urgent one.

For me, the most important thing about The Shiloh Project is that it is not interested in research for the sake of research; the scholarship of its members is more than just an academic exercise. We live in a world where sexual violence, family violence, homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia have become a lived reality for many people. Such violence is often (explicitly or implicitly) endorsed by faith communities and religious traditions. The Shiloh Project is deeply invested in the lived experiences of real human beings, and in standing against gender violence in all its manifestations, this research community endeavours to bring about positive change for those whose lives are adversely impacted by this violence.

What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?

As I noted above, I am really keen to continue my research around rape culture, gender violence, and evangelical Christian self-help literature. As someone who was not brought up in an evangelical tradition, I was unaware of how popular this literature is, particularly amongst young Christian women. What concerns me about this literature is its affirmation of traditional gender roles and the potential violence associated with such hierarchical relationality. I am hoping to work on this project with Caroline Blyth, one of the directors of The Shiloh Project. One of my hopes for our research in this area is that it will be accessible to readers beyond the academy – potentially, the same readers who engage with Christian self-help literature. I am so grateful to The Shiloh Project for providing a platform where this might actually be possible.

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16 Days of Activism – Day 8: Claire Cunnington

To mark Day 8 of the 16 Days of Activism our interview is from Claire Cunnington, PhD student at the University of Sheffield.
Tell us about yourself…who are you and what do you do?
I’m a Wellcome Trust funded PhD student at the University of Sheffield, researching what helps or hinders adults recovering from childhood sexual abuse.
What’s your involvement with The Shiloh Project?
I’m a member of The Shiloh Project.
How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?
I’m researching the way in which the dominant discourse around rape and abuse affects a victim’s ability to recover. Religion, particularly Christianity in the UK, has influenced this discourse. The Shiloh Project’s discussion of rape culture and the Bible is examining the wider context and my research is, in part, examining the impact.
How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussion about gender activism today? 
By highlighting and questioning the origins of victim-blaming.
What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?
I am currently running a qualitative survey on recovery for adult survivors, which looks at what helps and hinders recovery. The survey can be found here: includes a question about religion and spirituality. I aim to produce a paper discussing the influence of religion on recovery for adults who have experienced childhood sexual abuse.
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16 Days of Activism – Day 3: Caroline Blyth

Blyth rainbow

Our third interview to mark the UN’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence is from co-director Caroline Blyth, senior lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Auckland.

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

I’m a lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Auckland, and also participate in the Gender Studies programme there too. My teaching reflects my research to a great extent, and I focus on religion in popular culture, with a particular interest in issues of religion, gender and sexuality – how do religious communities and traditions impact socio-cultural perceptions of gender and sexuality? I also co-organize a student engagement project in the Faculty of Arts, which is called Hidden Perspectives: Bringing the Arts Out of the Closet. It’s a project inspired by the original Hidden Perspectives project developed by the fabulous folks at Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield. With Hidden Perspectives Auckland, we have created an inclusive academic and social community for queer students at the University, where they can get involved in queering the Arts and making their voices heard.

What’s your involvement with The Shiloh Project?

As Katie and Johanna have explained in their own interviews, the Shiloh Project is something Katie and I had spoken about starting quite a while ago, but we were able to push ideas into practice when we met up with the indomitable Johanna and some other wonderful colleagues (Emma Nagouse, Valerie Hobbs, and Jessica Keady) last year at a meeting in Leeds. So along with Katie and Johanna, I help run the Shiloh Project, and I couldn’t be prouder to be part of such an important project, or to work with such wonderful colleagues.

How does The Shiloh Project relate to your work?

A lot of my work to date has focused on gender violence in sacred texts, particularly the ways that biblical depictions of gender violence can echo the still very prevalent myths and misperceptions around gender violence that sustain contemporary rape cultures. When I started my PhD thesis on the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34) back in 2005, I fully expected to be discussing the ways that social attitudes towards sexual violence had ‘moved on’ and become far more informed compared to biblical discourses of rape. But alas, I soon discovered this was not the case. And what frustrates me is that so many of the biblical traditions that do present really problematic ideologies around gender and gender violence are either ignored or excused by both religious communities and academic biblical scholars – as though their ‘sacred’ status rendered them beyond our critique. But, given how powerful the Bible remains as a religious and cultural text in global contemporary cultures, its problematic texts and traditions (which appear to endorse rape-supportive ideologies) urgently need to be addressed and discussed in both academic and wider public forums. Because these texts do still play a role in the world today, shaping popular perceptions about gender violence and granting validity to some really damaging discourses around rape and rape culture.

How do you think The Shiloh Project’s work on religion and rape culture can add to discussions about gender activism today? 

I think that a massive strength of the Shiloh Project is that it rescues religious studies and biblical studies from the confines of the academy and offers academics, students, and interested members of the public an accessible (but still academically-rigorous) platform to talk openly and engagingly about a topic that remains so taboo. It’s not doing work that only a handful of like-minded academics can understand, but is really motivated to widening the discussion and fostering a sense of community and activism in which people both inside and outside the academy can participate. I think this is both vital for the future health of religious studies as an academic discipline, but also crucial to every academic’s role as critic and conscience of society and their responsibility is to make a difference – in my case, by tackling gender violence and encouraging activism that will make the world a safer and more inclusive place.

What’s next for your work with The Shiloh Project?

I have two future projects in mind at the moment. I’m hoping to work with my colleague in Auckland, Emily Colgan (a fellow Project Shiloh member), on the problematic depictions of gender roles and relationships in conservative Christian literature, particularly ‘self-help’ literature and fiction. This is an incredibly popular and prolific genre, and what I’ve come across has fascinated (and appalled) me as to its re-inscription of traditional gender roles, as well as its perpetuation of some very common rape-supportive discourses.

I’m also currently focusing on a slightly different strand of gender violence, and that is the symbolic and structural violence of transphobia sustained by religious rhetoric (particularly conservative Christian rhetoric). There’s been a huge flurry of concern among conservative Christian communities around, what they term, the ‘transgender debate’. To my mind, this ‘debate’ essentially denies the existence of authentic trans identities and works to exclude trans people from the human community. Some of the discourses evoked in these discussions are really toxic, and play a significant role in perpetuating or validating the alarmingly high rates of transphobic violence that trans people have to live with on a daily basis. I’m wanting to interrogate this ‘transgender debate’ and highlight its potential for sustaining violence, not to mention its problematic engagements with sacred texts, theologies, and traditions. I hope too that my work can inspire some timely and urgent dialogues of reconciliation between queer and religious communities. A tall order, but I’m intent on gradually chipping away at the homophobic and transphobic edifices that remain so prevalent in many religious communities today.

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Handmaids and Jezebels: Anaesthetising the Language of Sexual Violence

Handmaid’s Tale Title Credits

I recently spoke to a friend about the Hulu adaption of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. As we continued to discuss what we agreed was a remarkable reimagining of Gilead, my friend mentioned how uncomfortable the ‘sex scenes’ made them feel, to which I responded, “… is that because they’re rape scenes?”

My friend was taken aback by this, and provided an empathetic “Yes! Because they are RAPE scenes!” in what sounded like a moment of revelation. This prompted me to consider the impact of the euphemistic nature of language used to describe sexual violence in Gilead. Such use of language contributes to the normalisation of sexual violence, which lies at the heart of rape culture.

It should be noted that my friend is not alone in their description of the sexual violence in The Handmaid’s Tale; Commanders are regularly described as having sex with handmaids during “the ceremony”, as opposed to raping them.

Commentaries on the episode “Jezebels” which describe June’s visit to a “brothel” filled with “prostitutes” are particularly intriguing in this regard. We are made explicitly aware by Moira that the only “choice” these women have is between Jezebels and death. Can such a scenario really be described as prostitution? Unless we are to recognise enforced consent as consent, a “rape den” seems a more appropriate term than a sex club.

What is more, conversations about Handmaids, or the women held captive at Jezebel‘s rarely recognise these experiences as a form of human trafficking. This was brought more sharply into focus in the episode “A Woman’s Place” where it is revealed that the Handmaids  will act as a commodity in a trade deal with Mexico.

In the episode “The Bridge”, where Janine is relocated from one household to another after enforced surrogacy, we are presented with a graphic reminder that “the ceremony” is not just rape; it is gang rape. Daniel rapes Janine whilst his wife forcibly restrains her by holding her arms and squeezing Janine’s shoulders with her thighs.

When Janine subsequently attempts suicide, we are forced to confront the deeply problematic relationship between Janine and the visibly distressed Aunt Lydia. The intended familial bond and incitement of trust between Aunts and Handmaids is made explicit in the attribution of familial status to the Aunts. Janine’s attempted suicide sees the climax of tenderness, which has been built between these characters over preceding episodes. In reality, however, this relationship is more comparable to that between a child and a trusted family member who beats, blinds and grooms them. After all, the role of Aunt requires the rape facilitation of who we can understand to be their symbolic nieces.  As such, The Red Centres, where the Aunts attempt to indoctrinate Handmaids, could appropriately be discussed in terms of grooming.

Euphemisms which normalise rape and misname the experiences of women (“the ceremony”, indoctrination, prostitution) are rife, not only within the narrative world of Gilead, but in contemporary discourse about The Handmaid‘s Tale, and in society more broadly. For example, contextualising the use of Handmaids as an extreme necessity in a time of crisis feeds into the ‘greater good’ narrative where justification for rape in terms of upholding (often patriarchal) societal norms is understandable, if not acceptable. Such reasoning is endemic in discussions of rape.

We see this explicitly (and contemporaneously) in terms of ‘corrective’ rape and with rape as punishment. This is outworked implicitly when, for example, women’s clothing, or perceived wanton behavior is provided as contextual information in the case of rape. In these instances, rape is discussed as an inevitably for those who transgress the expectations of femininity by behaving in a certain way, or indeed, by those who uphold the ideals of femininity by being beautiful. It is a no-win situation.

The practice of using euphemistic language when dealing with instances of rape or sexual violence, which blur the lines between sex and rape, propel the “myth that rape is just a particular shade of sex, rather than a violent crime”. The minimizing impact of euphemistic language when talking about rape can also be found in testimonials from rape survivors.

This conflation of experiences and merging of language can have devastating impact, to the extent where people become unable to identify rape as they struggle to separate these assaults from a “normal” sexual encounter. As a pertinent example, the now acquitted Ched Evans, as part of his defence, said he did not speak to the woman he was accused of raping “before, during or after” the alleged rape. This was not recognised as rape, despite a clear admission that Evans made no attempt to gain consent. This provides chilling and infuriating context to the apparent interchangeability in public consciousness between sex and rape.

Another relevant example is “stealthing”, a form of sexual assault where a man non-consensually takes a condom off when penetrating someone. Notably, this was recently reported as a “sex trend” before a public outcry across various media outlets demanded it be recognised as a form of rape. The term itself, when considered in line with how this form of assault is often spoken about in a shockingly casual way, demonstrates how euphemistic language can contribute to the normalisation of sexual assault.

The manipulation of language to normalise sexual assault is a key tool the leaders of Gilead, who call themselves “Sons of Jacob” after the biblical patriarch, use to make their radical power structures and the rapes they are founded on more palatable. For example, when Fred Waterford renames the rape of Handmaids as “the ceremony” for what he describes as “branding purposes”, his companion remarks that this sounds “nice and godly, the wives will eat that shit up”.

In the words of June, which act as a motif throughout the original novel, ‘context is all’ – and in the context of rape culture, being critical of how we choose to articulate instances of sexual violence and/or rape is essential in attempts to de-normalise rape, and fight back against the ‘cultural numbness’ society has developed in the face of sexual violence.

Anaesthetising the language with which we talk about rape and sexual violence is counterproductive to combatting rape culture and amounts to a gross misnaming of the experiences of rape survivors.

Emma Nagouse is an incoming WRoCAH funded PhD student in the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS) researching the phenomenon of rape culture in the Bible and contemporary society. Emma’s research focusses around how biblical and contemporary intersectional gender presentation facilitates rape and disbelief culture through reaffirming oppressive stereotypes and informing perceptions of rape gradations. Emma is Assistant Editor of the University of Sheffield History Matters blog and co-organiser of the Sheffield Feminist Archive (SFA).

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Rape Culture in the Christian Church

rings image

A blog post entitled ‘She Only Said “Yes” Once’ recently made its way around Christian circles. In the post, Pastor Reggie Osborne laments the state of sex education in the United States and argues instead for an approach which considers consent as an event which happens most meaningfully at the wedding altar. Osborne writes:

On, July 28th, 2001, the answer we gave each other before God and everyone was: “Yes.”  “Yes,” until the day that we die.

Yes, I could kiss her. Yes, I could sleep with her. Yes, I could steal glances of her in the shower because I think she looks great even after 5 kids. She said, “Yes,” to me, forever.

I wasn’t asking for a one night stand or permission to touch her after a party. I was asking for forever, and that’s what she gave me. That’s what I gave her.

She has never had to say it again. She said “yes” only once. She meant it to last. I meant it to last. It has lasted fourteen years. It will remain in effect until death parts us.

In the comments section, several readers challenged Osborne to comment on the danger of this perspective on consent, particularly for victims of spousal rape. Pastor Osborne quickly clarified his position, affirming every person’s right to refuse sex, but seemed surprised such a point might be raised.

While Pastor Osborne’s follow-up comments demonstrate that he does not endorse spousal rape, the fact that it wasn’t on his radar when writing the post is evidence of a wider pattern within the Christian community. That is, ignorance of and scepticism about the prevalence of rape culture. In short, for many Christians, rape culture is an unfamiliar concept. Those that know something about it often deny or undermine its existence.

Rape culture is an environment in which sexual assault and other forms of abuse of women are normalized in the media and in popular culture. It occurs ‘where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent’. These acts of violence can occur not just at the physical act of rape itself but also at the level of other kinds of physical touch as well as at the more subtle level of language, gesture, and imagery.

Whatever you think about the ways in which the Bible represents violence towards women, the Christian church has contributed to the normalization of such violence. Perhaps the most frequently cited recent example of rape culture within Christianity is the purity/modesty movement, which places primary responsibility for sexual purity on women, portraying men as largely helpless against ‘immodest’ females.

Perhaps less frequently discussed but familiar to most Christians are sexually charged Christian youth group games, popularized by such organizations as Young Life. One apparently popular game is ‘Kissing Rugby’, a version of which involves a girl sitting in the centre of a circle, guarded by another girl, while a boy tries to manoeuvre his way past the guard to kiss the girl. In some contexts, youth leaders join in as well. Another game, ‘Balloon Squeeze’, is described like this:

Each pair gets a balloon to put between them. Without using hands, they have to pop balloon first. Can do it “most in a minute” too. Beware of any “risqué” popping techniques ‘cause you know those kids and they’ll do it to get laughs!

In this way, even from an early age, Christian girls are simultaneously taught to bear the burden of warding off sexual violence and placed in vulnerable and confusing situations where boys are encouraged to touch and grope their bodies.

But even in churches which recognize the dangers of these widespread practices and avoid them, Christians nevertheless have inherited and been influenced by a likewise destructive longstanding theological tradition. From the early church through the Reformation and beyond, theologians (almost always male) have interpreted biblical narratives about sexual violence in ways which ‘reinforce patterns of subjugation, silencing, and violence against women’.

In short, although some have begun to explore how rape culture is fostered and perpetuated within the Christian church, there is considerable work to be done, particularly when it comes to its subtler expressions. As a linguist, I’m interested in how language expresses and reflects rape culture in Christianity. For example, in a corpus of popular (primarily American) sermons on divorce, I am currently examining instances where Christian pastors mention domestic violence from the pulpit. My analysis of these will form the basis of a chapter for the first Shiloh Project edited collection on Rape Culture and the Bible.

More specifically, I am looking at how language is used to conceal or expose violence, obscure or clarify perpetrators’ responsibility, conceal or honour victims’ resistance, and blame or else contest the blaming of victims. I’m also interested in the extent to which pastors appeal to the authority of God and the Bible to justify their statements regarding spousal abuse and its relevance for divorce.

So far, language about domestic violence in these sermons points to the following conclusions: First, only a small minority of pastors mention domestic violence directly. And second, among those pastors in the corpus who do mention domestic violence, all but one minimize perpetrator responsibilityconceal violenceblame victims, and conceal the resistance of victims.

Take, for example, the following excerpt from one frequently accessed sermon from the public archive, Sermon Audio.

The Bible gives only one sin that can break the marriage vow and give ground for divorce, and that sin is fornication. Drunkenness is not a sufficient reason for divorce. A husband may come home at night drunk and beat his wife or waste his money, make his home a hell, but according to God’s Word that’s no ground for divorce. I’ve had many a girl say, Oh I know that he drinks. But I’ll reform him and marry him because I love him. But remember one thing, young woman, when he gets drunk and comes home and beats you up, raises hell and … leaves you without food even clothes to wear, you have no ground for divorce. That marriage is still binding.

Here, the pastor employs victim blaming and pathologizing throughout. A particularly interesting technique is how this pastor blames the victim in the way he introduces his invented dialogue with a victim. Note his use of evaluative ‘oh’ (highlighted above), where ‘many a girl’ says ‘Oh, I know that he drinks’. The pastor presents a multitude of women, each responsible for her husband’s violence because of her naivete and stupidity in believing that she can change the man she foolishly loves.

Although the speaker directly connects the husband with his violence, the command ‘remember’ he directs at the woman, further minimizing the perpetrator’s responsibility and placing it squarely on an individual (young) woman’s shoulders. The pastor neglects to mention any resistance to this violence, though the language of violence is surprisingly explicit and exposing.

The pastor also appeals to authority, contrasting God’s Word with quite dramatic examples of violence. He here teaches that even the most devastating acts of violence cannot alter the requirement to obey commands (allegedly) ‘according to God’s Word’. The implication seems to be that God does not consider the suffering of victims of violence to be relevant to His commands.

Considering the statistics regarding domestic violence, it is highly likely that a victim or potential victim of violence sat in the pew when each of the sermons in the divorce corpus was originally preached, not to mention the many women who have since downloaded them. Messages about spousal abuse such as these reinforce a culture in which Christians blame women for the violence they suffer and command them to be silent about what they endure.

In short, these pastors are preaching rape culture. As one countercultural pastor, one of the only pastors both to directly mention and condemn violence against women, asked:

What Christian is it that beats his wife? What Christian is it that deserts his wife, walks out on her? What Christian is it who acts in such immoral ways and is behaving in a way completely contrary to the Word of God?

Might we also add, what pastor is it who preaches rape culture? In my view, any Christian who wishes to disassociate from rape culture will need to answer these questions more directly and convincingly. And urgently.

Valerie Hobbs is Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics in the School of English at the University of Sheffield. Her research has consistently focused on examining the ways in which seemingly inclusive large institutions establish community boundaries via language and, in some cases, marginalize and exclude vulnerable members. She is currently working on compiling several corpora of religious texts.

Image: Wedding rings and the Bible. [Via Pixabay]

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Sexual Violence and Rape Culture in the New Testament

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All too often when people think about violence in the Bible, they focus on the Old Testament and ignore the New. People tend to imagine that the Prince of Peace rejects violence, and situate Jesus and the God of the New Testament in opposition to the Old Testament God; this kind of oppositional reading is problematic in many ways, not the least in its historic contribution to anti-Semitism, but also ignores what the text itself says.

In fact, the New Testament is full of violence and suffering, violence which is condoned by Jesus himself. Even in the Gospels, Jesus demands that eyes be plucked out and hands cut off as a result of sin, and threatens the earth with bloody violence. The Book of Revelation, written in the first or second century CE, is widely read as early Christianity’s rejection of the sinful, violent Roman Empire and the hopeful expectation of justice for true believers. This understanding of the Apocalypse overlooks the rampant violence omnipresent in the text, which depicts sexual violence as a punishment ordained by God. As John Marshall says, “Sexualized violence against women is one of John’s primary modes of depicting God’s judgment.”

Revelation’s views on rape are not unique, but rather participate in prevalent attitudes about gender, power, and war in the ancient world. In antiquity, sexual violence and rape were frequently depicted as just punishments for conquered peoples. The defeat of an army represented a power dynamic between enemies, where the victors upheld the masculine role of empowered penetrator and the conquered were made effeminate in their weakness, their penetrability. This dynamic is preserved in art, such as the 5th century BCE Eurymedon Vase.

The vase depicts a nude Greek soldier, victorious and with his erect penis in his hand; the reverse shows a defeated soldier from the Battle of the Eurymedon River bending at the waist, with hands raised in fright or submission. The inscription reads, “I am Eurymedon, I stand bent forward.” The vase represents mainstream ideas that equate defeat with penetration and victory with forced sexual conquest: rape. The Roman period continues this trend; Roman coins minted to commemorate the defeat of various provinces, including Judea, depict Rome as a tall, virile soldier, often holding a phallic sword; the soldier looms over a bent female figure in distress, representing his power in gendered and militaristic terms at the same time. It is perhaps not so surprising, then, that Revelation not only portrays its enemies in feminised terms, but also punishes them with sexual assault.

There are two sections in Revelation where sexual violence is most notable. In Revelation 2:22–23, the Son of God passes judgement on various churches in Asia Minor. He singles out one woman from Thyatira, Jezebel, who is a prophetess:

“Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.”

While many translations shy away from the sexual violence implicit in the threat, the text’s repeated references to sexual immorality, in the context of a work that operates on the principle that ‘the punishment fits the crime,’ implies that rape is an appropriate punishment for this ‘false’ prophetess.

Likewise, the Whore of Babylon, the author’s female symbol for Rome, is also threatened with sexual violence; the angel explains that the Great City of Rome will be made desolate and naked, implying again that her promiscuous behaviour should be punished by sexual violation, condoned by God. Despite the fact that the Whore is a symbolic woman (rather than actual woman, like Jezebel), the reinforcing of sexual violence as punishment contributes to a culture in which rape is understood as not only acceptable, but necessary in order for the “right side” to emerge victorious, masculinity intact.

The question of sexual violence as punishment, unfortunately, remains all too relevant. From popular culture to present day wars, rape persists as a means of control. All too recently, American soldiers were found guilty of sexually abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison after photos showed evidence of soldiers raping male and female prisoners; even if not directly influenced by the biblical texts, the notion that victims of sexual assault need to be “innocent,” as one of the guilty soldiers insisted, hearkens back to ancient ideas about warfare, rape, and power.

Even films seeking to make light of contemporary preoccupations with the apocalyptic end up repeating and reinforcing the rape culture that persists from antiquity to the present day. The 2013 film This Is The End, directed by Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg, received a lot of attention at its release for its rape jokes, which include a joke whose punchline is that Emma Watson is overly paranoid about being raped; James Franco admitting to having sex with Lindsay Lohan when she was so intoxicated that she thought he was someone else; Channing Tatum naked, bound in chains, as the sex slave of Danny McBride; and perhaps most memorably, the rape of Jonah Hill by a well-endowed black demon. As Nico Lang at Thought Catalogue states, “…rape is explicitly an act of gender and power. It asserts roles and hierarchies of dominance, and when we make a world where it’s easier for Jonah Hill to get raped for ‘acting like a woman,’ we create a world that perpetuates female sexual assault. We continue to demonise femininity and promote the exact toxic masculinity that This Is the End, at its best, wants to satirize.” Just as Revelation, a text that purports to reject the trappings of the Roman Empire, inevitably reinscribes gendered violence as right and appropriate, so too This Is The End props up rape culture with its rape jokes.

Author: Dr Meredith Warren is a member of The Shiloh Project, lecturer in Biblical and Religious Studies at the University of Sheffield and is Deputy Director of SIIBS. Meredith’s main research interests lie in the cultural and theological interactions among the religions of the ancient Mediterranean, and especially metaphors of food, eating, and the sense of taste. You can find Meredith on Twitter @DrMJCWarren.

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