close

Gender Studies

Rape Culture and Religious Studies: Book Review by Rabbi Dr. Barbara Thiede

Book image

The recently published book Rape Culture and Religious Studies:Critical and Pedagogical Engagements is edited by (Shiloh contributor) Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence. This review is by Barbara Thiede, Department of Religious Studies, UNC Charlotte.

Rape Culture and Religious Studies is an important book for all Shiloh Project supporters. Please order copies for your courses and libraries! More details can be found here.

Rape Culture and Religious Studies

Edited by Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence

Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2019 (vii + 207 pages, ISBN 978-1-4985-6284-3, $95.00)

Once the #MeToo movement was taken up by celebrity (and white) victims of sexual harassment and assault, it sparked a public conversation that spread across the globe. A wide range of media outlets offered venues for personal disclosures, painful discussions, and, it was hoped, increased awareness of the rape cultures women are forced to navigate every day.

Religious studies teachers, in the meantime, continued to address sexual violence in the texts and traditions they studied. And yet: conversations in Religious Studies classes, that so often focus on class and race, gender and sexuality, sexual violence and abuse, seemed detached from the rape cultures that (literally) surround students and teachers alike.

In their co-edited volume, Rape Culture and Religious Studies, editors Rhiannon Graybill, Meredith Minister, and Beatrice Lawrence put the question: how do religious texts and traditions that justify, support, and maintain sexual violence intersect with contemporary rape culture?

The volume contains an introduction and nine essays. It includes studies that treat Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu traditions. Topics are wide-ranging. T. Nicole Goulet, for example, assesses the place and power of recently emerging “sacred literature” in the discussion of sexual violence and rape culture. Her discussion of Priya’s Shakti, a comic book that emerged after the gang rape and death of Jyoti Singh Pandey in 2012, describes how the comic revived Hindu practices while urging women to “speak without shame.” Goulet notes that while the comic does not critique existing power structures, the women it invites to speak have done so. Goulet’s essay demonstrates: there are significant intersections between religious tradition and contemporary rape culture.

Other essays provide similar insight, sometimes with surprising effect. Minenhle Nomalungelo Khumalo asks what happens when we read the biblical gang rape and death of the Levite’s Concubine in Judges 19 as a rape fantasy, one which can be profitably compared with non-consensual pornography. Kirsten Boles explores the way #MosqueMeToo can be situated when #MeToo adherents engage in racializing sexual violence; such as when Islam is accused of inherent misogyny and Muslim women are depicted as needing to be saved from violent brown men by Western (white) feminists. Meredith Minister offers a trenchant critique of the fetishizing of consent to counter rape culture. In her essay, she makes clear why consent, too, is an instrument of power. Rhiannon Graybill explains why analyzing rape culture demands more nuanced approaches to issues of harm, describing the relationship between race, sexual violence and colonialist visions of women as victims. She also points out that the Religious Studies classroom which addresses rape culture must deal with the ambiguities sex and sexual pleasure introduce to the discussion.

Some essays disappoint. Susanne Scholz’s essay on what she calls “cop-out hermeneutics” not only fails to offer new or innovative insights, it also deploys language about students that seems potentially flippant (“students may shed tears” when asked to relinquish “privatized, personalized and sentimentalized” biblical meaning). Teachers in Religious Studies classrooms can aim to ensure that their students feel safe when they are introduced to academic analysis of their religious traditions. No one benefits from internal eye-rolling or dismissive responses to this challenge.

But other essays in this volume provide models for Religious Studies teachers, like the essay by Gwynn Kessler, which demonstrates deep pedagogical self-reflection. Kessler also offers a model lesson plan that layers Deuteronomist texts on genocide, slavery, and rape and consciously brings those texts into conversation with contemporary manifestations of violence and sexual abuse. She walks the reader through her lesson plan, providing a fine example of thoughtful pedagogy for teaching texts of terror.

When I teach texts of sexual violence in the Hebrew Bible, I know that one – or more – students in my classroom will likely self-disclose in some way; rape victims are among my students. Rape Culture and Religious Studies acknowledges that survivors sit in our classrooms and that many come from religious traditions that promote or, at least, make a home for sexual violence.

Religious Studies teachers and their students live and work on campuses where rape culture is normalized. Today, teachers of religious traditions and sacred texts cannot afford a pedagogy that examines sexual violence of the past and simultaneously shuts out the rape culture of the present. Religious Studies teachers should read Rape Culture and Religious Studies. It will help us begin the work of exploring, analyzing, and exposing the intersections of religion and rape culture. That, too, is our work.

Barbara Thiede, Department of Religious Studies, UNC Charlotte

 

read more

The Shiloh Project Visits Legabibo

8A70725E-1460-418A-8442-DAC502CA4352

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Legabibo

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

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

Legabibo also promotes and practises integrity, transparency and accountability.

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

 

read more

“Until the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies”: Rizpah and the power of silent protest

CF843F64-4C2A-4C9C-9458-3396D3CBE49A

Today’s blog post is written by Siam Hatzaw. Siam is an undergraduate student of English Literature and Theology at the University of Glasgow. She is an editor for Persephone’s Daughters, a literature magazine empowering female survivors of abuse, and is also a features editor of The Glasgow Guardian. You can find Siam on Twitter @siamhatzaw.

“Until the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies”:  Rizpah and the power of silent protest

The story of Rizpah and her silent vigil (2 Samuel 21:1-14) is one of the most heart-wrenching narratives of grief, devotion, and sacrifice within the Bible. But more than this, its implications are far-reaching as her story resonates with the voices of oppressed women throughout history. If actions speak louder than words, then Rizpah’s vigil epitomises the power of silent protest in the face of injustice.

The Madwoman in the Attic

I frame my reading of Rizpah through the “madwoman in the attic” trope which refers to certain female literary characters. The trope is coined by Gilbert and Gubar in their seminal work of feminist literary criticism by the same name, where they discuss the tendency within literature to characterise women as either angelic or monstrous, an embodiment of purity or an unkempt madwoman. Gilbert and Gubar argue that both characterisations should be killed off as neither can accurately represent women; they emphasise the need for women to be written as multifaceted and developed characters in their own right.

The trope’s name is drawn from the character of Bertha Mason in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, a woman locked away by her husband for an unnamed insanity. The perception of Bertha’s character exemplifies the link between Rizpah and the madwoman trope: madness is continually feminised and thus weaponised against victims of trauma to deride the justness of their cause. Juliana Little explains that:

“Madness has been perceived for centuries metaphorically and symbolically as a feminine illness and continues to be gendered into the twenty-first century. Throughout history, images of mental illness in women send the message that women are weak, dangerous, and require containment”.

This association between women and madness is also represented through the feminisation of “hysteria” – a common theme in Victorian novels and the basis of a medical diagnosis (predominantly linked to women) that the American Psychiatric Association did not drop until 1952.

In short, women and madness have always gone hand in hand. Female literary characters are all too often painted as irrational, overemotional, or excessive – and it is here that we find Rizpah.

Situating Rizpah

Rizpah begins her story already a victim. She is introduced as Saul’s concubine and after his death, his commander in chief Abner is accused of “going into” her (2 Samuel 3:6-21). This leads to conflict between Abner and Ish-Bosheth, Saul’s successor, so Abner defects to David who becomes King. According to Isabel Hamley, Abner’s assertion of power through sexual domination to achieve his own means is enough to qualify the incident as rape. Rizpah’s body is used to assert a claim to the throne, making her “nothing but a pawn in powerful male hands”. The men’s conflict isconcerned with the violation of Saul’s property and pays no attention to Rizpah’s trauma. This comes as no surprise, considering the concubine’s status as “the locus of battles between men”.

David’s Atonement

Fast forward to 2 Samuel 21, we find Israel in the midst of a three-year famine. God tells David the famine is “on account of Saul’s blood-stained house” (2 Samuel 21:1) as he had broken an oath by trying to annihilate the Gibeonites in spite of Israel’s sworn promise to spare them.

David asks the Gibeonites what he can do for atonement, at which they call for the execution of seven of Saul’s descendants: five sons of Merab and two sons of Rizpah. Seven is considered the biblical number of completion, used repeatedly to reference redemption. Therefore, these men can be seen as Israel’s sacrifice of redemption for Saul’s sin.

Transforming Trauma into Action

The seven sons are executed and left to hang upon the hillside at the beginning of harvest, as Rizpah watches with unspeakable grief. Here we can draw a parallel with another grieving mother who stands at the foot of the cross, watching her own son become a sacrifice of redemption. What unimaginable strength must it take for these mothers to bear witness to their sons’ deaths?

According to Deuteronomic Code, corpses must be buried on the same day or they are cursed by God. Hebraic tradition views burial as a sacred rite. However, David leaves these men to rot for all to see – a grave injustice.

And so, Rizpah defies the king. Her suffering sparks something within her, driving her to turn her trauma into action.

Alone Upon the Hillside

Rizpah guards the corpses “from the beginning of the harvest until the rain poured down from the heavens on the bodies” (2 Samuel 21:10). This is a period of approximately six months, April to October, through which she endures immense physical and psychological torture. The sight and smell alone would be enough to destroy anyone – and yet, she perseveres.

Let’s come back to the madwoman trope. Picture Rizpah alone at the foot of the bodies, fighting off the birds by day and wild animals by night, sleeping with the rotting corpses… in all this time, she finds no aid, no company, or consolation. She is seen as a woman driven insane by grief.

But Rizpah doesn’t care. Her vigil is more than mourning; it’s a protest, and she knows she is right in the eyes of God.

Rizpah’s Significance for Israel

We should take a moment to consider why the bodies are left to hang. Samantha Joo argues that if David was only looking to appease God for atonement, he would have demanded a burial. Instead, he leaves them as a warning for those who would oppose him. Joo suggests that had it not been for Rizpah’s presence, onlookers would have slinked away in fear. Instead, because of this madwoman on the hillside, they start to ask questions. Their murmurs spread and eventually reach King David.

Rizpah’s protest was on the verge of dismantling the legitimacy of his kingship, as he had broken his oath to spare Saul’s descendants and defied Hebraic funeral ethics. And so, to silence the murmurs, David gathers the bones of Saul and Jonathan, together with the seven men, and gives them their just burial. After this, God “answered prayer in behalf of the land” (2 Samuel 21:14), and rain falls on Israel once more.

Ekaterina Kozlova proposes that by ensuring the men’s burial in the ancestral tomb, Rizpah’s vigil salvages the dynasty’s dignity. Moreover, it is intertwined with the fate of a nation. Her actions neutralised the penal plagues that wreaked havoc in Israel. Kozlova further argues that these ritual contexts allow women to enter the previously inaccessible domain of male power and turn these solemn occasions into public forums for pressing issues.

Rizpah rouses David into action as, according to the rabbis, he considers: “If she, who is but a woman, has acted with so much loving kindness, must not I, who am a king, do infinitely more?”. Thus, she uses the power available to her in this domain to shame the king into utilising his own power and right his wrongs.

What’s in a Name?

A deeper look into the meaning of Rizpah’s name illuminates the story’s political significance in light of her call to repentance. The name means “hot coals” which symbolises the cleansing of sin.  In Isaiah 6, a seraphim places a hot coal from the altar upon Isaiah’s lips to cauterise the wound of sin. Rizpah, the “hot coal”, served as a symbol to Israel as a cry to repent – when her protest is heard, the rain falls from the heavens and completes their redemption.

Athalya Brenner presents “hot coals” as a symbol of quiet but enduring passion, a slow-burning anger, and purification.Likewise, Kozlova notes that glowing coals or fire are symbolically connected to human life, further proposing that by situating Rizpah’s name (a double light-based cipher) at the intersection of two dynasties, it becomes “an indispensable gloss” on the narrator’s intentional social commentary: to criticise the king’s injustice.

Contemporary Examples

Rizpah’s story resonates with contemporary examples of women who use their trauma to fight for change. Joyce Hollyday relates her to Israel’s Women in Black, and to other groups of mothers of grief who become mothers of hope.

The Women in Black

The Women in Black are an anti-war movement demonstrating opposition to Palestine’s occupation by holding weekly vigils in mourning for the victims of the conflict. Formed in 1988 following the outbreak of the First Intifada, the group now comprises an estimated 10,000 activists around the world. The movement inspired global vigils in solidarity, which became protests for local issues in each country and evolved into an “international network of women for peace”.

Gila Svirsky has written about this movement’s powerful symbolism of mourning, dignity, and conscience; their commitment to nonviolence was a source of strength. She describes a particular vigil before which they had been warned by the Commissioner of Police about an overwhelming threat of violence – and yet more women than ever showed up to protest.

“All of us, with our hearts in our throats, more silent than our silent vigil ever really was, standing there in determination not to be shoved aside by bullies.  People threw things from their cars, but nothing exploded.  And the women continued to stand with dignity”.

It is notable that the majority of protesters were victims of trauma themselves, who channelled their pain into transformative action. As Svirsky states: “Those who were sensitive to the issue of violence against women applied that lesson to all forms of violence and oppression”.

Svirsky uses the Arabic word sumud, steadfastness, to describe the Palestinians clinging to their views despite adversity, not being shaken from the ultimate goal. Sumud reflects the power of nonviolent resistance. However, the media’s reports of the vigils are continually littered with ridicule and criticism. Svirsky writes: “What’s that you say about prophets in their own land?  One had to be really committed – or nuts – to keep plugging.  But we did”.

“Nuts”. These were madwomen in the eyes of the onlookers, like Rizpah, a picture of insanity at the foot of the bodies. The trope portrays women who are vilified, using “madness” to invalidate their cause, women who are called hysterical rather than brave, despised rather than sympathised. And yet, they persevere, standing firm against their oppressors. Both the Women in Black and Rizpah embody sumud in their powerful resilience.

“Comfort Women”

Another contemporary comparison is proposed by Samantha Joo, who relates Rizpah to bronze statues situated around the world which represent the “comfort women”. “Comfort woman” is a translation of the Japanese ianfu, a euphemism for “prostitute”. It refers to the many thousands of women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II. Joo explores the insidious efforts of governments who seek to suppress stories of and by these women whose bodies bear witness to rape and oppression.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan pressured President Moon Jae-in of Korea to honour the December 2015 agreement in which the Korean government agreed to remove the bronze statue of a comfort woman standing outside the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, in exchange for an apology and monetary compensation. Prime Minister Abe “and other like-minded constituents” also tried to encourage the removal of bronze statues in Hong Kong, Australia, and the US, as well as whitewashing Japanese textbooks and attempting to change textbooks in Korea and the US. Joo views this as an attempt to “monopolize all of history with their master narrative”, an “all-out international campaign to wipe out the counter-narratives of the comfort women”.

Joo discusses the similarities between this endeavour to erase the scandal of the “comfort women” and King David’s attempts to cover up his collusion with the Gibeonites. The historian’s master narrative implies that David’s hands were tied: he had to sacrifice the men to restore fertility to Israel. Yet underlying this narrative was an attempt to silence David’s opposition. It is a message of terror, which Rizpah dares to confront.

Joo argues that, similarly, the Korean people must resist until Japan’s Prime Minister publicly acknowledges the systematic sexual enslavement of the “comfort women”. Just as Rizpah is the silent presence representing the senseless death of innocent men slaughtered for King David’s ambition, the statue represents the senseless trauma these women suffered through. Both the statue and Rizpah thus become counter-monuments embodying stories which interrogate and destabilize unjust leaders.

Joo powerfully states that:

“If any of us allow a government to deny the injustice of the past or the present by manipulating and perpetuating its master narrative, then we are complicit. We are like the men of Gibeah, who passively watch a king kill seven innocent people. Rather we, like Rizpah, should dare and persist in fighting the master narrative that tries to silence the cries of women who with their bodies incarnate the counternarratives.”

The Power of Silent Protest

Rizpah’s story echoes throughout the history of oppressed women. She is in a dangerously vulnerable position as a concubine, a victim of rape, and a grieving mother. Yet, Hamley argues that it is her very lack of power – exemplified in her repeated victimisation and taking up the only option open to her – that ultimately enables her to achieve her goal.

In the end, Rizpah, the madwoman alone upon the hillside, is vindicated. Hamley states: “The woman, invisible and used in 2 Samuel 3, abused further through the death of her sons, is now seen and recognised… not simply by David but by the God who only brings the famine to an end once justice is done for her loved ones”.

Rizpah’s story portrays the incomprehensible strength of women in their suffering, an ability to turn trauma into transformative action and enact real change. Although she is silent, her actions ring loud and clear as a daring challenge to the king to do what is right.

Funlola Olojede describes silent but open resistance as a powerful tool, particularly in cases where overt forms of protest would be dangerous or ineffective: “Her silence continued to cry out louder than words… her resilience in the face of unspeakable grief as she watched the bodies of her two sons rot away before her eyes speaks to women today”.

Across the world, women who bear unspeakable suffering are not allowing themselves to be broken. They are letting their silence cry out until justice is found, a mirror to Rizpah and her vigil which touched the heart of God.

read more

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

First trans solidarity rally and march, Washington, DC USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susannah Cornwall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy of Ted Eytan on Flickr

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

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

Feature image courtesy of Ted Eytan on Flickr.

read more

Seminar at Cliff College: Researching Faith Among Survivors of Abuse

BGC

‘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: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-bgc-inaugural-lecture-tickets-58870632647.

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

 

k.cobb@cliffcollege.ac.uk

@CobbKirsi

read more

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

846F3BBE-0289-41F3-900E-4A494B9ED027

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?

read more

Dr Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana) Visits the UK

E899F680-0CB6-48AD-BDF7-6DF2C94EDD2F

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.

read more

Grant for Research with Ugandan LGBT Refugees

A84808F4-0DEB-49DC-AF96-4839702EEF18

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

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

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

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

read more
1 2 3 11
Page 1 of 11