Contemporary Culture

Seminar at Cliff College: Researching Faith Among Survivors of Abuse


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

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

Revd Dr Susan Shooter

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

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

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

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

Kirsi Cobb


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Shiloh Project Research Day Report


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The following arose in discussion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Everyday Rape Cultures And Religion: A Complex Relationship? Dr Katie Edwards In Conversation With Dr Dawn Llewellyn, Sunday 28 April 2.30pm


Everyday Rape Cultures and Religion: A Complex Relationship?

Dr Katie Edwards in conversation with Dr Dawn Llewellyn,  at 2.30pm

  • Garret Theatre

Part of: Storyhouse Women

In this session, Dr Katie Edwards discusses the significant ways religion perpetuates and challenges the myths and misconceptions that lie at the heart of rape cultures: ideas of purity and sinfulness; the idealisation of women’s bodies, sexuality and sex; and the powerful taboos and silences that conceptualise gender violence as ‘inevitable’ and ‘normal’.  From #MeToo, the sex abuse scandals in the Church, the rise of ‘purity’ practices, and our expectations of what it means to be a ‘good girl’, religion is a powerful influence in our contemporary world.

Dr Katie Edwards is the Director of the Sheffield Interdisciplinary Institute for Biblical Studies and Co-director of The Shiloh Project at the University of Sheffield. Katie is a frequent commentator and contributor in the national media and has written various articles for the national press. Recently, she presented the award-winning BBC Radio 4 Lent Talk The Silence of the Lamb, which reflected on her experiences of witnessing sexual abuse as a teenager.

Dr Dawn Llewellyn is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester. She researches and has published on gender and feminism in contemporary Christianity, and is currently writing a new book on women’s experiences of motherhood, voluntary childlessness, and Christianity.

This Storyhouse Women event is free to attend, for pass-holders only.

Everyday Rape Cultures and Religion: A Complex Relationship?

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Dr Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana) Visits the UK


Dr Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana) is currently visiting the UK to work on the AHRC Network Grant (International Highlight Notice) project ‘Resisting Gender-Based Violence and Injustice Through Activism with Bible Texts and Images’ with Shiloh co-directors Johanna Stiebert and Katie Edwards.

Dr Kebaneilwe is based at the University of Leeds during her visit. She  co-led a Shiloh Project research day on 25 March and gave a paper ‘Troubling Misogyny and Gender Based Violence: Examples from Botswana and the Hebrew Bibleat today’s SIIBS seminar.

Dr Kebaneilwe also met with journalist Rosie Dawson to discuss possibilities for collaborating on a radio documentary.

Look out for Dr Kebaneilwe’s forthcoming monographs with the Sheffield Phoenix Press SIIBS series and our Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible series with Routledge Focus.

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How recognising Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse might help shift Catholic culture

Cathedral of St Patrick & St Joseph, Auckland, ‘Tenth Station’

The crisis of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, and the institutional denial and cover up, has left many people of faith shocked by the lack of appropriate response toward survivors.

Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane, the president of the Australian bishops’ conference, has called for a Copernican revolution on sexual abuse in the church and a shift in Catholic culture so that abuse survivors, not clergy, shape the church response.

In an interview with Crux, published during the recent Vatican summit on sexual abuse, he also compared victims of clergy abuse to Christ crucified.

Unless you see that what’s happened to the abused has happened to Christ and that therefore, they’re Christ crucified in their needs, all the external commands in the world won’t do it.

In our work, Rocio Figueroa Alvear and I have interviewed sexual abuse survivors and show that recognising Jesus as an abuse victim can help them, and help the church to change.

Jesus as victim of sexual abuse

There are good theological grounds for recognising a connection between Christ and those who have been subjected to abuse. The words of Jesus in Matthew 25:31-46 say that what is done to others is also done to Christ, and this has been explored in the work of Beth Crisp.

In Matthew 25, and presumably in the words of Archbishop Coleridge, this connection is at a theological or metaphorical level. But recent work has offered a strong argument to go beyond the theological connection and to see a more literal historical connection. In my own work, and writings by Elaine Heath, Rev Wil Gafney and Australian theologian Rev Michael Trainor, it is argued that Jesus does not just share theologically in the abuse, but that he himself experienced sexual abuse during the crucifixion.

This may seem outlandish at first. When Katie Edwards and I wrote on stripping as sexual abuse, many comments showed readers were perplexed that we could be seriously suggesting this. For many people, the initial reaction is to be startled and shocked. Some ask whether it is meant to be a serious suggestion, or say it is just jumping on a #MeToo bandwagon. However, as Linda Woodhead points out, if you look at it more closely you may start to think differently.

Read more:
#HimToo – why Jesus should be recognised as a victim of sexual violence

Crucifixion, state terror and sexual abuse

The torture practices of military regimes in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s offer two key lessons for understanding crucifixion. First, the torture was a way for the military authorities to send a message to a much wider audience. Anyone who opposed the military would know what to expect.

Second, sexual violence was extremely common in torture practices. Sexual violence was a very powerful way to physically and psychologically attack a victim and his or her dignity. Sexual humiliation and shaming victims could destroy their sense of self and stigmatise them in the eyes of others.

The use of crucifixion by the Romans fits with both of these. Crucifixion was a form of state terror which threatened and intimidated many more people than the victims themselves. The way that prisoners were stripped and crucified naked was an obvious way to humiliate and degrade them, and should be recognised as a form of sexual abuse.

File 20190311 86710 1g7kthg.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1Crucifixion was a form of state terror and victims were likely to be stripped.
from, CC BY-SA

Interviews with survivors

In research published this month, we interviewed a small group of Peruvian middle-aged male survivors of clergy abuse on how they respond to the historical argument that Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse. We had interviewed this group before on how the sexual abuse they had experienced when they were teenagers and young men had impacted on their lives.

In these new interviews, we asked if they had considered Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse and how they viewed the historical and biblical evidence for it. We also asked if any such recognition could be helpful for them and other abuse survivors, or the wider church.

Most interviewees were initially surprised by the idea, but saw no problem in accepting the historical evidence and argument. Only one participant initially said that not enough evidence was presented to show it was sexual abuse but he later explained that he saw Jesus’ nakedness as a form of complete powerlessness.

Participants were evenly split on the question whether it would help them. About half felt it would not but the other half spoke positively of the connection it created between Jesus and survivors.

On the significance for the wider church, all of the participants agreed, without hesitation, that it would have a positive impact. All of them suggested that church ministries, clergy and lay, should embrace this topic.

They felt it would help the church to achieve more solidarity with survivors, and also, a more realistic and historic vision of Jesus. If the wider Church embraced this history and deepened it theologically, it might help towards changes in the church which prioritise survivors, and ensure they are treated with more compassion and solidarity. If the church is seeking a Copernican revolution on sexual abuse, recognising the experience of Jesus for what it was is surely an appropriate starting place.

David Tombs, Chair professor, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Grant for Research with Ugandan LGBT Refugees


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

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

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

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

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More Grant Success for The Shiloh Project


Great to hear today that our major two-year project on the Bible and rape culture has been funded by an AHRC large grant!

The research team is Katie Edwards (University of Sheffield), Caroline Blyth (University of Auckland), Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds) and Richard Newton (University of Alabama)… watch this space for project updates!

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


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

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

The primary aims of the project were fourfold:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image by AJC1. On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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