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

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by Jayme Reaves and David Tombs

Since giving a Shiloh Project Lecture at SIIBS, the Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies, in January 2018 we have been continuing our work on ‘#MeToo Jesus’. Our paper ‘#MeToo Jesus: Naming Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse’ has now appeared in the International Journal of Public Theology (December 2019) and is available on Open Access here. In the article we explore ways that recent readings of Jesus as victim of sexual violence/abuse might connect with #MeToo, and vice-versa. 

We start with Matthew 25:40, ‘You have done this to me too…’ as affirming a metaphorical connection between the experience of abuse survivors and the experience of Jesus. We then look beyond the metaphor, and discuss more literal and direct readings of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse. We consider the work of David Tombs (1999), Elaine Heath (2011), Wil Gafney (2013), and Michael Trainor (2014), who each read Jesus as a victim of sexual violence and we note similarities in their work. The last part of the article tackles a question that we are sometimes asked about this reading, ‘Why does it matter?’ or ‘What good does this do?’. Exploring this question has been at the forefront of much of the work since the lecture, as part of the ‘When Did We See You Naked?’ project. We are particularly interested in how this reading might help to address the victim-blaming and victim-stigmatising which often accompany sexual violence. You can read more about the ‘When Did We See You Naked?’ project here, and listen to David’s interview (4 mins) with Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report (18 April 2019) here.

To examine this, we have been working with another colleague, Rocío Figueroa Alvear, at Good Shepherd College, Auckland (New Zealand). In 2018 Rocio interviewed a group of male sexual abuse survivors on their responses to naming Jesus as victim of sexual abuse. You can read the report on interviews with male survivors here. It is striking that this group of survivors were split on whether the reading is helpful for survivors, but they all agreed it was important for the church. 

Rocío and David are currently interviewing nuns and former nuns who have experienced sexual abuse. This has involved discussion of an abridged version of David’s article ‘Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse’ (see here). The shorter version was first published in Estudos Teológicos in Portuguese, and is now available from the University of Otago also in English, Spanish, French and will soon be in German. We hope to share our findings from the interviews next year.

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David and Rocio have also been part of a New Zealand group led by Emily Colgan, which includes Caroline Blyth and Lisa Spriggens. We are developing a tool-kit for use in churches on understanding sexual violence. It was really good to pilot some of the resources in November at a workshop with Anglican clergy and church leaders in Auckland.

During 2019, David has also had a research grant to work with Gerald West, Charlene van der Walt, and the Ujamaa Community at the University of KwaZulu-Natal on a contextual bible study on Matthew 27:26-31. This looks at how the stripping and mockery of Jesus might be read as sexual violence in a South African context. It has been interesting to see the difference that translation can make to responses, and to hear from students how the bible study was received when they used it.

Jayme Reaves has been leading workshops with church groups, activists, and clergy both in the United States and in the United Kingdom.  While these workshops are not aimed at victims/survivors of sexual abuse, they are facilitated sensitively with the understanding that there are no guarantees as to who is in the room. Building on this work and on the workshops conducted by Rocío and David elsewhere, Jayme is forming plans for a potential project in Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia and is currently seeking funding and local partners that will expand the work in two areas: working directly with victims of sexual violence in conflict contexts and their support networks, and building in an ecumenical and interfaith dimension with a view to developing a faith-based resource towards addressing the stigmatisation of victims of sexual violence.

Looking ahead, we are excited to have two books in preparation. The three of us (Jayme, Rocío and David) are co-editors for the book When Did We See You Naked?’: Acknowledging Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse with SCM Press (forthcoming in 2021). We are delighted to be working with a fantastic group of international scholars on this collection. Meanwhile, David is writing for the Routledge Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible Series on The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross, for publication in 2020.

To promote further discussion of #MeToo issues, Jeremy Punt (Stellenbosch University) is planning a session on ‘#MeToo and Jesus’ in the Political Biblical Criticism Session (see here) at the 2020 International Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Adelaide, Australia (5-9 July 2020, see here). The Call for Papers is here and still open until 29 January 2020. We plan to be part of the conversation. If you are going and interested, why not send Jeremy a proposal? Or come along and join the discussion: we would love to hear what you think. 

David is also looking forward to seeing Shiloh colleagues and others in Dunedin in August 2020. The New Zealand Association for the Study of Religions (NZASR) are hosting the 22nd Quinquennial World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR). Colleagues in the University of Otago Religion programme have been working hard on all the organisation. It promises to be a great conference in a beautiful setting, so why not plan to come to Otago in 2020?

David Tombs

The author David Tombs

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