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Sexual abuse in the context of Christian purity culture in Britain

Today’s post is by Chrissie Thwaites, a PhD student in sociology of religion at the University of Leeds (UK). Chrissie’s research is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC/UKRI). You can follow her on twitter or keep up to date with her work on LinkedIn.

Researching purity culture in Britain

I’m currently in the final stages of my PhD at the University of Leeds, where since 2020 I’ve been researching the impact of evangelical Christian purity culture on women in Britain. Earlier in my PhD, I wrote for the Shiloh Project about the need to investigate purity culture in the UK. Since then, I have conducted research and begun to share my findings. 

Thus far, most research on evangelical Christian purity culture has focused on the US (e.g. by Sara Moslener and Linda Kay Klein), given that the movement was especially prominent there. There have been a few studies looking at purity culture in some way with both American and British participants (as in Katie Cross’s chapter in Feminist Trauma Theologies, or a chapter on purity culture in Katie Gaddini’s book The Struggle to Stay). But as mine is the first more substantial piece of work specifically and exclusively on purity culture in Britain, I needed to build up a picture of this context, to provide background.

Consequently, my PhD has involved mixed methods research, consisting of an online survey and some one-to-one interviews. The survey gave sufficient breadth and garnered quite a wide reach – the link was opened by 1300 people, 863 then clicked through to somewhere in the survey itself, and over 600 filled it out all the way to the end and submitted a response, of which 580 were considered eligible and included in my study.[1]

Meanwhile, I also conducted five interviews to provide more depth and to ground my research in select personal stories. These were also helpful as I wanted to explore British evangelical youth subculture in the 2000s and 2010s in a bit more detail than the survey allowed, and to hear more about the role of this subculture in people’s lives. Having said that, I also ended up with quite a lot of qualitative data in the survey too – I was very privileged to have a lot of people share their experiences with me in the open-ended questions. I also had a much higher response rate than I’d anticipated, which suggests that I’d tapped into something people wanted to talk about, and that a good number of people were looking for an outlet to share their stories.

Findings: abuse in the context of purity culture

Most of the respondents did not recount personal experiences of abuse, and there were no survey questions to prompt such a disclosure. But some people, of their own accord, did disclose such experiences – including one of my five interviewees. Similarly, the majority of participants didn’t mention any knowledge or awareness of experiences of abuse by their peers or those around them. But again, some did. I felt that the seriousness of this topic meant it required attention, even if the number of people discussing it was in the minority. This was especially the case given that anyone who shared these experiences did so without prompting, as it wasn’t a part of the survey structure. Those who did discuss abuse tended to focus on sexual assault specifically, usually in one of two ways: either in responses to sexual assault (and how purity culture can shape these), or, in some cases, on how purity culture creates an environment which actually facilitates sexual assault. 

With regard to the first, some participants talked about the role of purity culture in the aftermath of sexual assault. One participant described “in response to reporting a rape being told God would forgive me for having sex before marriage (as the first response)”. Not only does this fail to provide trauma-informed support to someone who has experienced sexual assault, the notion that this person is in need of forgiveness implies some sort of transgression and fault on her part. Another survey respondent describes a similar experience: “when I told the pastor’s wife that I had been sexually assaulted in my 20s, she led me through a prayer of repentance, as the assumption was I had done something to cause the assault”. These are different people, but their experience is dreadfully similar, and the implications of both responses are the same: guilt and culpability. 

Multiple survey respondents discussed how the idea that pre-marital sex makes a person tainted had shaped (and worsened) the aftermath of sexual assault. One person, for example, discussed an assault at university: “I was sexually assaulted in uni when I was still a virgin. Purity culture caused me to view myself as ‘used’ and unlovable”. Immediately after this assault, she attended a relationships session at an evangelical church, “which basically boiled down to if you have sex before marriage you’re dirty and unlovable …  The message also made me feel extremely upset and angry as I already believed in Jesus and I still got assaulted, so where was I supposed to go?”. In a place where she expected comfort she was instead told that she was now (in her words) dirty and unlovable. She also reports leaving the church for a period of time because of this, and experiencing guilt and shame. 

Others too described feelings of shame and self-blame. “I 100% blamed myself for my own perceived failings,” one woman said. “Nobody ever told me I had a voice … When I lost my virginity it wasn’t exactly by choice,” which she says led her to a very dark place: “I truly felt like now I was no longer a virgin, I couldn’t do any of the things I had wanted to do – missions work, marry a lovely Christian guy, even play in the worship team at church. It felt like my world had ended and I didn’t know what to do with it”. This idea of the loss of community and the possibility of living a fulfilling Christian life also appeared in others’ stories: “when I was raped in my adolescence I didn’t share my story because I was afraid I had lost my purity and was no longer worthy of love or welcome in the Church or in general,” another participant shared with me. In other words, she remained silent out of an internalised fear of what would happen, and an anxiety that she was no longer lovable or welcome in her church community. For another woman, this fear was realised, and she describes being “thrown out of my church” when she was raped “outside of marriage”. 

With regard to the second, some participants in my research felt that the environment of Christian purity culture did not safeguard them from, but rather enabled, sexual abuse. One woman talked about a boyfriend from a particular church, who raped her during their relationship. “I believe the church contributed to his decision to do so,” she says harrowingly. Another discussed how purity teaching came predominantly from youth events growing up and how in this context, “because sex was wrong, it fetished [sic] force and non-consent. (As that could be the only other way to experience sexual contact!?!?) I had friends as young as 12 or 13 who would talk about rape as a positive thing”. When describing her experience of purity culture, another participant attributed her experience of sexual assault in her late teens to it: “I hold it largely responsible for my rapes in my abusive relationship,” she says. 

Evangelical Christianity has had a number of high-profile abuse scandals in recent years, which have documented serious and devastating abuses of power from those in leadership positions.[2] I was reminded of these news stories when I read one survey submission, in which the respondent disclosed being sexually abused in her mid-teens by the leader of her evangelical youth group, who was over 10 years her senior. As she describes it: “He said that God had been leading him to me, and said ‘God says it’s all right’ when he touched me. In retrospect, I was groomed and sexually abused by him.” This man’s position of power and appropriation of spiritual authority seems to have facilitated his behaviour flying under the radar – and all the while, he outwardly maintained the unacceptability of pre-marital sex. There isn’t much for me to say here; the idea that vulnerable adolescents exist within these environments – ones purporting to keep them safe – is not one easy to make peace with. 

Additionally, many of the examples given by these participants constitute secondary victimisation. The European Institute for Gender Equality defines this as follows: “secondary victimisation occurs when the victim suffers further harm not as a direct result of the criminal act but due to the manner in which institutions and other individuals deal with the victim” (2016). It can be caused, for example, by “repeated exposure” to the perpetrator, or “the use or inappropriate language or insensitive comments” by “those who come into contact with victims” (ibid.). So, take, for instance, the women who shared with someone that they had been sexually assaulted and were immediately told they needed forgiveness. This would be an example of secondary victimisation due to the victim-blaming undertones of these responses, and thus the further harm that comments like these can inflict.

Charting the path forward?

A short article like this one only begins to scratch the surface – there is more to discuss about sexual assault in the context of purity culture. But I find it helpful to categorise my main findings and recommendations based on these into two broad categories: first, how purity culture can shape the aftermath of sexual assault; second, in some cases, how purity culture can even facilitate and conceal abuse.

As I’m approaching the end of my PhD, I’ve spent a significant amount of time poring over my data and re-reading people’s answers, and I am cognizant of the lived experience within them. I am strongly aware that behind every survey ID number is a person – someone who has lived a whole life with nuance and emotion and who at some point, took the time to fill out a survey for the research of someone they don’t know. I get the impression that some of these people also felt silenced because they are seen by some Christians, first and foremost, as a threat with the capacity to tarnish Christianity. What I see first is their need to be listened to.

In my research, I take a sociological approach to studying purity culture; mine is not a theological study, and I don’t attempt to offer a confessional response for people to use going forward. I will leave that up to others, as I am not the right person for it. What I do want to do, however, is shine a light on the experiences that have been shared with me. To do my respondents justice by telling their stories. What comes after this, I am not sure – but it is my hope that in doing this work, all of these people know that someone has heard them. And realise that they are not alone. 


[1] In my research I focus specifically on people who were “raised as girls” within this Christian context, following the language of Klein (2019). This means that my participants are either cis women (the vast majority), or assigned female at birth non-binary (a very small percentage).

[2] In the UK, this includes the lengthy and ongoing investigation of John Smyth, former leader of Iwerne Trust which ran evangelical Christian camps; former leader of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon and prominent evangelical leader Jonathan Fletcher; more recently, Mike Pilavachi, former leader of the charismatic evangelical Soul Survivor festivals and ordained vicar of its church in Watford. The latter prompted the Evangelical Alliance to call for evangelicals to “do better”. 

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New Book: The Bible and Gender-Based Violence in Botswana

In this post we feature the forthcoming book The Bible and Gender-Based Violence in Botswana (Routledge, 2024) by Mmapula Diana Kebaneilwe. The book is in the Routledge Focus series, ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’, which is edited by Emily Colgan, Johanna Stiebert and Barbara Thiede. The book is out in March and ready for pre-order from 22 February 2024. (Yes, this post is early… – but we just couldn’t wait!) Read about the book here first!

  1. How did the book come about?

The current rampancy of gender-based violence (GBV) against women and girls in Christianised Botswana prompted the writing of this book. As a Motswana woman who lives and has lived in this country since birth, I have witnessed uncountable inhumane acts of violence that disproportionately affect women and girls. I have experienced GBV myself, as have many women and girls that I know personally (family and friends), as well as those I only read or hear about on different media platforms, including the national television station, newspapers, etc. They, we have suffered GBV, and many have lost their lives at the hands of men and boys, those who are most often the perpetrators of GBV. Therefore, my identity, experiences, and research created in me the hunger to put together in print Batswana women’s stories of GBV alongside stories of GBV against biblical women. My quest has been to explore how the Bible and the Botswana faith communities it inspires intersect with traditional political landscapes to reinforce GBV. 

  • What does activism mean to you, and how does this book relate to religion and GBV?

Activism means everything to me. I am of the view that keeping quiet about acts of violence and injustice of whatever nature, including GBV, equates to colluding with perpetrators, and hence, I choose to expose, name, and seek ways to correct such. Researching and writing on GBV, as in this book, is a way of campaigning for social change regarding women’s and girls’ rights. Their rights are being stifled by gender inequality, which has resulted in our pandemic of GBV. 

The book relates to religion and GBV in that stories of GBV against women in Botswana are read alongside similar stories from the Bible, the sacred literature of Christianity, the dominant religion in Botswana. My research has revealed unbelievable resonance between GBV against textual biblical female characters and Botswana’s real flesh and blood female persons. The exercise of inter-reading or co-reading is an important one, given the authority and respect accorded the Bible in the Botswana context where many people intimately associate themselves with its faith and teachings.

  • What are the main themes of the book?

The main themes of the book are as follows:

  • Demonstrating and acknowledging that GBV is endemic in the Bible and in Botswana
  • Insisting that there should be no recycling of biblical injustices: read it, name it, and fix it
  • Reading the Bible and its stories of GBV in a quest for transformational revelation and for gender justice in Botswana and beyond.
  • Who would benefit from the book?

The book will benefit everyone willing to seek positive change in regard to gender equality, and is intended for a wide readership, including researchers, postgraduates, church leaders and other representatives of religious institutions, and upper-level undergraduates.

  • Give us a quotation from your book and tell us why you chose it?

“Like a mirror, the Bible is an accessible resource—but only if we first, use it and second, use it purposefully and constructively with integrity” (Kebaneilwe 2024, 84).

I choose the above quotation because I believe that the Bible is confrontational in nature by reflecting parts of life that we do not want to see or do not want to admit to: jealousy, passion, anger, violence, etc. Like a mirror, its transformational effect can only be accessible if we first admit what we see when we look into its pages.  Ultimately, concealing, spiritualising, or twisting the rottenness in biblical texts will only serve to perpetuate the same in our world, which explains why even in Christianised contexts like Botswana, we still find heinous acts of injustice and violence, including, in this case GBV. 

Congratulations to Mmapula from everyone at The Shiloh Project!

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Conference: Gender and Religious Exit, Moving Away from Faith

Tuesday, 28 November 2023 at 9:00–17:30 

Please use this form to register to attend the online symposium: Registration – Gender and Religious Exit (onlinesurveys.ac.uk)

Organisers:
Dr Nella van den Brandt, Coventry University, UK 
Dr Teija Rantala, Turku University, Finland 
Dr Sarah-Jane Page, University of Nottingham, UK 

From the conference organisers:

There have always been reasons for people to move away from a religious tradition, community or movement. Religious traditions are instrumental in providing individual members with a perspective on the world, a community and a relationship with the divine. Religious communities socialize their adherents regarding behaviour, embodiment and emotions. When people move away from their religion, their experiences may pertain to all or some of these aspects and dimensions. Leaving religion is thus a varied and diverse experience.

The one-day online symposium Gender and Religious Exit starts from the premise that motivations for moving away from religion range from experiencing cognitive or emotional dissonance to social marginalisation to a critique of power relations. The notions of ‘moving away’ or ‘religious exit’ should be considered in a layered and nuanced manner: they raise questions about what exactly individuals consider to leave, and what elements of behaviour, embodiment and emotions remain part of their environments, lives and futures. 

Moving away from religion can thus involve complex processes and negotiations of all areas of life and understandings of the self. An intersectional perspective and analysis of leaving religious is long overdue, since notions and experiences of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race and dis/ability are central in shaping identity and the self. The multidisciplinary symposium invites scholars to investigate the variety of contemporary dynamics of leaving religion in the lives of individuals and communities.

During the opening plenary session, research findings will be presented that emerged from the Marie Skłodowska-Curie funded two-year qualitative research by Dr Nella van den Brandt (Coventry University, UK) on women leaving religion in the UK and the Netherlands. Keynote lectures on gender, feminism, apostasy and non-religion / leaving religion in various national and cultural contexts will be provided by Dr Julia Martínez-Ariño (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, the Netherlands) and  Prof. Dr Karin van Nieuwkerk (Radboud University, the Netherlands). During parallel sessions, we will further look into current international and intersectional perspectives on moving away from religion.

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Updates!

There are a few updates from The Shiloh Project. (We’ve been so busy we haven’t got around to writing a post recently.)

The Shiloh Project AHRC grant is drawing to an end. It has been a really productive collaboration and some of the outputs will be coming out for a while yet. Our recent public engagement event in Otley, West Yorkshire (on 30 January 2023), ‘What You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible But Were Afraid To Ask’ was a big success and was covered by the local press (see here). It is also the subject of a mini audio-documentary (Episode 12 of The Shiloh Podcast), which gives a vivid snapshot of the event. 

We also hosted an international day conference on Bible and Activism (University of Leeds, 31 January 2023), with presentations by Richard Newton (University of Alabama), Katherine Southwood (University of Oxford), Yannis Ng (University of Leeds), Robert Kuloba Wabyanga (Kyambogo University), David Tombs (University of Otago) and Jayme Reaves (Sarum College), and Mmapula Kebaneilwe (University of Botswana). Richard Newton, interviewed by Rosie Dawson, features in Episode 13 of the Shiloh Podcast. Please see the slideshow of images of events in Leeds. 

Look out for more episodes (in production!) of The Bloody Bible podcast, with Emily Colgan and Caroline Blyth.

The ongoing Abuse in Religious Contexts AHRC grant, led by Gordon Lynch is in full swing. Co-director Johanna Stiebert has begun to host a series of workshops. The first (led by Ellie Thwaites and Laura Wallace, University of Leeds, see here) brought together postgraduates and early career researchers exploring topics at the intersection of religion and trauma or abuse. The second (led by Ann Gleig and Amy Langenberg, see here) explored abuse in Buddhist settings and is the focus of Episode 15 of the Shiloh Podcast. The third was held with postgraduates of Trinity College (Bristol) and Bristol Baptist College, exploring secondary violations in biblical texts. More workshops are in the planning stages. 

Episode 14 of the Shiloh Podcast features highlights of a project webinar with Linda Woodhead and Gordon Lynch. 

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Introducing Contributors to The Bible & Violence: Rosie Clare Shorter and Kirsi Cobb

Bible picture with a 'warning' sign.

Rosie Clare Shorter is a feminist researcher interested in sociology of religion and genders and sexualities studies. She completed her PhD at Western Sydney University in Australia. Her doctoral thesis explores Sydney Anglicanism as a lived religion, focusing on the social consequences of complementarianism. She is currently a sessional academic and you might catch her teaching or doing research assistant work at The University of Melbourne, Deakin University, or Western Sydney University (the latter online only, the commute is too far!). She is the executive officer for the Australian Association for the Study of Religion. Rosie is writing on the violent consequence of complementarian language.

To read more about Rosie and her work, see:
https://rosieclareshorter.com/  and https://supporttosurvive.com/

Shorter, R. 2021. ‘Rethinking Complementarianism: Sydney Anglicans, Orthodoxy and Gendered Inequality’, Religion and Gender 11/2 (doi: 10.1163/18785417-bja10005).

Shorter, R., E. Sessions & E. Hamence. 2021. ‘Taking Women At Their Word: How to Respond Well’, Eternity New (see here). 


Rosie Clare Shorter


My chapter will look at how the language of complementarianism, which is derived from the Bible, maintains gendered hierarchies and inequalities that scaffold gendered violence in evangelical Anglican communities. My focus is on the Anglican church in Sydney, Australia.  We know that Anglicans experience gendered violence at rates which are at least equal to, if not higher than, their non-Anglican counterparts (Powell and Pepper, 2021). Aspects of church teaching, particularly complementarian ideas to do with headship and submission, as well as misuse of Scripture, contribute to this. It is important to look closely at the language of complementarianism. Changing our language is key to changing cultures of gendered inequality and violence. My chapter will emphasise this.

Kirsi Cobb is a lecturer in biblical studies at Cliff College in Derbyshire, UK. She wrote her PhD dissertation on the biblical figure of Miriam and the multiple ways her story can be read when using different methods of hermeneutics. Her current research focuses on women in the Hebrew Bible with a special interest in biblical interpretation, including feminist, deconstructive and trauma studies. Her recent projects include two papers (one open access with De Gruyter and one with JSOT) which focus on the story of Lot’s daughters in Genesis 19 in the light of trauma theory. Her forthcoming publications include a book chapter on Woman Wisdom and Dame Folly in Proverbs (for The Oxford Handbook of the Hebrew Bible, Gender, and Sexuality) and a study on gender and sexual violence in Hosea (for The Oxford Handbook of the Book of Hosea). Kirsi is co-founder of the Bible, Gender and Church Research Centre, with Dr Holly Morse (University of Manchester). Together they work on an AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) funded research network around the topic Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo AgeTo date they have hosted one colloquium focused on coercive control, with another on hypermasculinity due to take place in April 2023. Kirsi is writing the chapter on Spiritual Abuse.  

Dr Kirsi Cobb, Cliff College (UK)

Several years ago, I was visiting friends on holiday with my then-boyfriend. We were supposed to stay for a few weeks but after about five days my boyfriend wanted to leave. I wanted to stay but he informed me that complying with his wish would be good practice for marriage where he would be my head and I would need to submit to his wishes. As an obedient Christian (and to the great upset of my friends) I left with him. A couple of decades later I was marking a student essay. She was evaluating her recent experience in a church, where the pastor had used the Bible to brow-beat his congregants into submission. Not touching the ‘Lord’s anointed’ was held up as an ideal that shut down any questioning over decisions made. Both this student and I had experienced something for which at the time we had no name: spiritual abuse.

Spiritual abuse is a relatively new and a contested term, and some see research into the topic as threatening religious freedom. As Lisa Oakley and Justin Humphreys  (2019: 18-20) have noted, however, these qualms should not prevent us from acknowledging people’s experiences of spiritual abuse or listening to survivors’ voices. In their monograph, they use the term ‘spiritual abuse’ to describe a range of experiences. Darby Strickland (2020: 346) has defined spiritual abuse as ‘[a]buse that occurs when an oppressor establishes control and domination by using Scripture, doctrine, or their “leadership role” as weapons. Spiritual abuse may mask itself as religious practice and may be used to shame or punish. For example, 

  • using Bible verses to shame or control 
  • demanding unconditional obedience 
  • using biblical texts or beliefs to minimize or rationalize abusive behaviors.’ 

In the experiences mentioned, some of these behaviours can be clearly seen. In my case, my boyfriend took a passage about male headship and wifely submission in Ephesians 5:22-23 and with some creative interpreting turned it into a manifesto about girlfriends, boyfriends, and unquestioned female obedience to male dominance. In the experience of the student, the pastor used his position of power and a misreading of Scripture (Psalm 105:15; 1 Samuel 24:6, see Helen Paynter 2020:90-92) to enforce his authority. Scripture, doctrine, and leadership roles can all be forces for the good in the world, but they can also be used to harm fellow believers. This demands our attention and requires a response. In my chapter I will explore the different forms of spiritual abuse and what the Church can do to become a safe space for survivors.  

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Introducing the Contributors To “The Bible and Violence” – Ericka S. Dunbar, Chingboi Guite Phaipi, and Tim Judson

We are delighted to introduce three more contributors to the Bible and Violence Project. Today, meet Ericka S. Dunbar, Chingboi Guite Phaipi and Tim Judson (– and find the Baylor connection between two of them!). 

But first… the editorial team of The Bible & Violence has finally met in person! Johnathan Jodamus and Mmapula Kebaneilwe joined Shiloh co-directors Chris Greenough and Johanna Stiebert for a public engagement event and conference in Leeds (30 and 31 January 2023). It was fantastic to hatch plans and meet in person (even if it was a trifle chilly outside). But now… back to the contributors…

Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar is Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament at Baylor University (USA). Her research focuses on biblical texts in relation to topics of gender, ethnicity, violence, intersectional oppression, sexual(ized) abuse, colonialism, trauma, and diaspora. Her first book, Trafficking Hadassah: Collective Trauma, Cultural Memory, and Identity in the Book of Esther and the African Diaspora (Routledge, 2021) is based on her doctoral dissertation and is a dialogical cultural study of sexual trafficking in the book of Esther and during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In this project, Dr. Dunbar analyses how ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, and colonialism intersect and interact in instances of human trafficking both in ancient and contemporary contexts. Dr. Dunbar will be writing the chapter on The Bible, Trafficking, and Enslavement

Enslavement, trafficking, and exploitation of the vulnerable are deeply rooted in large expanses of human history. From ancient to contemporary times, sacred texts and historical narratives and artifacts reflect practices of enslavement and trafficking of marginalized individuals and communities. I will illustrate that depictions of trafficking and enslavement in the Bible are often normalized and rarely contested by biblical writers and biblical interpreters alike. Moreover, many biblical stories frame trafficking and enslavement as reliant upon and as perpetuating kyriarchal and patriarchal ideologies, values, and practices.   

Drawing on biblical texts, I intend to (a) use contemporary definitions of (human and sexual) trafficking and enslavement to analyse practices depicted in biblical texts; (b) challenge ancient and contemporary rape cultures and other structural inequities that lead to widespread violence and oppression; (c) reflect upon physical, psychological, and spiritual implications of trafficking and enslavement; and (d) urge readers and interpreters to continue resisting and transforming exploitative, violent and oppressive systems. 

________________________________________________________________________________________

Chingboi Guite Phaipi comes from a tribal Christian community in Northeast India that converted en masse a century ago, the result of Western missionaries’ efforts. Chingboi has taught Old Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary and also serves as a Ministers Team member at the First Baptist Church of Chicago. She has published two monographs, Rebuilding a Post-exilic Community: The Golah Community and the “Other” in the Book of Ezra (Pickwick/Wipf and Stock, 2019) and The Bible and Patriarchy in Traditional Patriarchal Society: Re-reading the Bible’s Creation Stories (T&T Clark, January 2023), as well as articles, including “The First Encounter of the Golah and Their ‘Adversaries’ (Ezra 4:1–5): Who Are the Adversaries, and on What Is the Adversity Based?” (Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 20, 2020)“Sending Away Foreign Wives in Ezra 9–10: With a Brief Reflection from a Minority Tribal Perspective” (Asia Journal of Theology 35.1, 2021), and “The Bible and Women’s Subordination: A Tribal Woman Re-reads Genesis 2–3” (International Journal of Asian Christianity 5.1, 2022). For this project, Chingboi will be writing a chapter on The Bible and Violence with Perspectives of Tribal Communities of India.

The Bible is a deeply ingrained part of the identities of the Northeast Indian hill tribes and our traditional tribal cultures share some similarities with biblical Israel’s cultures, as I observe in my latest monograph, The Bible and Patriarchy in Traditional Patriarchal Society

I argue in my earlier monograph, Rebuilding a Post-exilic Community (2019), that it was the strong self-perception of the exile returnees that impelled them to come up with the stringent measure of sending away “foreign” wives (Ezra 9–10) whom they came to perceive as the “other”. This was unjust. But sometimes, in our culture, too, even standards that are unjust are uncritically and irresponsibly upheld as biblical and Christian. 

Reflecting more deeply on our tribal Christian societies, it has become clearer to me that the Bible has been used violently, and that is partly connected with our confident self-perception of being “right” Christians and biblical. In my chapter for this volume, I will explore further the violent employment of the Bible in tribal Christian societies.

In tribal Christian societies (such as Northeast Indian tribes), violence may never be associated with the Bible. Indeed, no physical violence may be carried out in the name of the Bible or Christianity. But when observed carefully, non-physical violent use of the Bible abounds in tribal Christian societies—through both its religious doctrines/rules and its societal and cultural customary laws, mores, and unscripted gestures—that rob some community members of their dignity and fullness of life. In fact, such usages of the Bible are perhaps as or more tragic and deadly than physical violence. 


Tim Judson is Lecturer in Ministerial Formation at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford (UK), where he specialises in systematic theology. He is also an ordained minister in The Baptist Union of Great Britain and serves as pastor of a church in Devon. Tim is contributing a chapter on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christological appropriation of the vengeance psalms as they pertain to Christ’s call to love our enemies. The German theologian and pastor offers rich material for thinking seriously about the call to discipleship in a world where the church can be easily co-opted to serve violent agendas. 

Tim’s doctoral thesis explored the place and meaning of lament using Bonhoeffer as his main interlocutor. His monograph Awake in Gethsemane: Bonhoeffer and the Witness of Christian Lament (Baylor University Press, to be published in 2023) examines the theological, ethical and liturgical premise, as well as the obstacles, for faithful lament in the Christian community today. Something that Tim has been keen to do is to explore in more depth how Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount sits alongside Bonhoeffer’s stress on praying the whole Psalter. 

In my chapter I will present a summary of Bonhoeffer’s historical and theological context, which is necessary for understanding the problems he is attempting to redress in his own work. I will then offer an overview of Bonhoeffer’s famous book, Discipleship (or The Cost of Discipleship), which includes an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. An analysis of how Bonhoeffer navigates the “love your enemies” passages will frame an optic for then exploring the vengeance psalms, also known as the imprecatory psalms. Bonhoeffer offers a compelling, and disturbingly real hermeneutic for interpreting and appropriating these psalms as a form of faithful participation in the prayers and redemptive suffering of Christ. Finally, the chapter will suggest some challenges and opportunities for using Bonhoeffer’s method as it relates to situations of violence, abuse, and trauma. 

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Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches 

The Shiloh Project is pleased to announce the launch of a new toolkit called Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm. The toolkit has been developed as an educational resource for church leaders, inviting them to reflect on ways that churches can become spaces where sexual harm survivors feel safe and supported. This resource can be downloaded by following the link to the “Accompanying Survivors Toolkit” page on this website.

Below, Emily Colgan (one of the creators and editors of the toolkit) explains more about the toolkit’s development and its goals.

Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches 

Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm is a trauma-informed resource that offers education and support of Christian clergy and lay leaders as they respond to sexual harm in their communities.  The resource is the collaborate effort of seven academics, all of whom work broadly at the intersection of sexual harm and Christian faith traditions in Aotearoa New Zealand. Through our work in this area, we have long been aware of the distressingly high rates of sexual harm in our communities, and we believe it is important for churches to recognise that the trends we see in society more generally are reflected in church communities as well. Moreover, churches need to acknowledge that sexual harm is perpetrated within these communities—at times by those in positions of authority—and the primary response of church leaders has far too often been one of self-preservation and concealment. For the most part, churches in Aotearoa have not yet found a voice to adequately address the issue of sexual harm, which is endemic in faith communities and in society at large. We (as a country, generally) have a problem with sexual harm and, for the most part, churches keep silent on this issue. 

This situation has come into sharper focus since February 2018, when the New Zealand government announced a Royal Commission of Inquiry into abuse in state care. In November of the same year, the inquiry expanded its scope to include abuse of those in the care of religious institutions. The harrowing testimonies of victims and survivors who experienced horrific sexual harm while in the care of religious institutions reveal that, for many people, churches have not been places of welcome and safety; they have not been places of good news. Churches have failed in their duty of care for the most vulnerable in their midst. The Commission’s work is still ongoing. But it has highlighted the urgent need for churches to be proactive in their support of victims and survivors, as well as in their efforts to ensure that church communities are no longer spaces where sexual harm can flourish. This resource is our – the contributor’s – response to this need. 

Over a number of years, we have canvassed stakeholders from within the Anglican, Methodist, and Roman Catholic traditions, seeking feedback about the educative needs of these churches for confronting the issue of sexual harm. We have also piloted this resource material with various church groups, seeking comment on the relevance and usefulness of its content for those in ministry. It reflects scholarship by experts in their respective fields, consultation with church leaders and those in frontline ministry positions, and insights and input from victims and survivors of sexual harm. It is by no means exhaustive, nor does it claim to be the full and final word on an appropriate Christian response to the issue of sexual harm. Instead, it enables workshop-based sessions which aim to educate clergy and lay leaders about

  • Understanding the nature of sexual harm and its prevalence in New Zealand society. 
  • Being alert to and responding in a pastorally sensitive manner to people within their community who have experienced/are experiencing sexual harm.  
  • Identifying and articulating some of the scriptural and theological foundations that work to justify/legitimise/enable sexual harm while silencing the voices of victims/survivors. 
  • Identifying and articulating some of the scriptural and theological foundations that work to challenge and resist sexual harm. 
  • Exploring how their church might work to create a safe space for victims/survivors of sexual harm. 

The toolkit will be of value to anyone in a church leadership position, including those training for Christian ministry and  those who have extensive ministry/leadership experience. It is intentionally ecumenical in nature and does not require knowledge of any one denominational tradition. While the format of the resource requires reflection and discussion in an “intellectual” sense, the aim of this work is to enable tangible, practical action in our communities that will support victims and survivors, and to make our churches spaces that are welcoming and safe. 

While some of the content relates specifically to the context of Aotearoa New Zealand, most of the material can be adapted and used further afield. There is space offered throughout the sessions for participants to discuss how issues pertaining to sexual harm relate to their own communities. Participants also have opportunities to consider how their own cultures, contexts, traditions, and languages will help shape their role of accompanying victims and survivors. 

The toolkit is free for anyone to download and use. It can be accessed here on the Shiloh Project website. If you have any queries about the use of the toolkit, please contact us at [email protected]

We hope this resource is a useful and meaningful tool for all those who accompany victims and survivors on their journey.

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The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross – Book Review

Review of The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross. David Tombs, Routledge, 2023 (open access).

The idea that Jesus was a victim of sexual violence will be novel and startling to many. Professor David Tombs opens his monograph The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross by observing that contemporary Christians are unlikely to fully appreciate the shame and degradation involved in first-century Roman crucifixions. Indeed, popular perceptions of the crucifixion draw more on centuries of sanitised artistic representation than on any in-depth interrogation of the sparsely detailed texts of the Gospels. Countless Christians over the centuries have encountered the theology and language of the cross on a daily basis without being confronted and haunted by its torturous, bloody, and excruciatingly humiliating reality.

This is a challenging subject to engage with, but one which is well-worth the effort and which, arguably, has significant implications for the future health of the church. The shift in thinking required to accommodate Tombs’ suggestion that Jesus was sexually abused relies on understanding that crucifixion was a practice designed to utterly degrade and humiliate those subjected to it. It was a highly political act and Jesus was, from the time of his arrest, a political prisoner. The torture, humiliation and cruelty involved in Roman crucifixions constituted a deliberate political strategy, designed to invoke profound revulsion and terror in onlookers and to thereby ensure compliance with Roman rule.

The first three chapters of this insightful study examine accounts of recent and ancient torture and execution practices, including Greco-Roman crucifixions, to shed light on the probability that sexual violence was integral to the torture endured by Jesus at the hands of Roman soldiers. Tombs makes the case that the stripping of Jesus (both implicit and explicit in the Gospel accounts) was itself a form of sexual violence, as anyone who has been subjected to such a practice will likely agree. Next, he argues that, while we cannot know for sure whether Jesus was subjected to further sexual violence, there is significant evidence from both recent and ancient accounts of torture and execution practices to suggest that this was highly likely.

Tombs’ earlier work on this theme has provoked mixed reactions.[1] As a fellow author on hard subjects, I empathise with Tombs’ observation that this book was difficult to write. In researching sexual violence, we encounter the distressing, the disturbing, the utterly barbaric. We read accounts that can never be unread, we amass a mental archive of images that can never be unseen. Many, even when prompted, will not want to front up to this subject. Tombs recognises that his hypothesis has been challenged in the past and this has prompted him to make his case thoroughly. He is clear that this book will be difficult to read. Indeed, he cautions readers at several points in the book that they may prefer to skip some of the more distressing content in the first three chapters. So why write it? Why do any of us confront the degradation and pain of sexual violence? Why do we not leave it under the centuries-old carpet where it has traditionally been swept? Why, moreover, do we not keep the crucifixion respectable?

Tombs writes this challenging book for two very sound reasons: because the Bible matters, and because confronting violence and sexual violence matters. He offers this book ‘with the hope that a reading of Jesus’ experience which is attentive to sexualised violence can contribute to better responses to sexual violence.’ In so doing, he is lifting this ‘unspeakable violence’ out of ‘shame, stigma and silence’ (p. 2). This is a powerful motivation. Arguably, it is only by speaking the unspeakable – by voicing the violation of the divine – that the sexual violence that continues to plague the church will diminish.

Well-versed in liberation theology and its demand that Christians recognise the suffering of the cross in the lives of the oppressed and are thereby called to action, it was on reading the account of the sexualised torture and execution of a woman in El Salvador and in the context of increasing public awareness of sexual violence as a tool of conflict and genocide in the 1990s that Tombs identified a gap in liberation theology. There was little reference to sexual violence in torture and none to the sexual violence of the cross. ‘How,’ Tombs asked, ‘were those who suffered sexualised violence to be helped down from the cross? How was this possible if the form of crucifixion they experienced was never spoken about?’ (p. 4). Tombs’ subsequent  study of the torture practices and abuses of authoritarian Latin American regimes informed his developing theology of the cross as a locus of sexual violence, leading him to propose two things: that public crucifixions were a deliberate strategy of state terror and that forced nudity and sexual violence were integral to this.

Tombs utilises accounts of recent and ancient torture, including assertions by Seneca (first century CE) that some crucifixions involved extreme sexual violence, to inform his hypothesis that it is highly likely that Jesus was sexually violated (in addition to the strippings, which themselves constitute abuse) during the deliberately dehumanising public spectacle of torture and execution. It is in the first three chapters that Tombs’ lays out the groundwork for his assertions, before turning, in chapter 4 to the ongoing issues which accompany sexual violence – victim blaming and stigma – and, crucially, to the recovery of human dignity which is Tombs’ ultimate aim.

Drawing on Tombs’ earlier work and more recent research, chapters 1-3 follow the crucifixion narratives to address, in turn, the stripping, mocking and crucifixion of Jesus that are explicit in the texts. The forced nudity of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and discussion of biblical, Jewish, Greek, and Roman attitudes to nudity inform chapter 1. Chapter 2 examines recent reports of abuse of detainees and ancient accounts of the widespread practice of rape during war to support his view of the likelihood that Jesus was further abused after being stripped naked, a possibility supported by evidence that, in the practice of torture, stripping is generally a precursor to additional acts of sexual violence. While we do not know for sure what Jesus endured in the praetorium, we do know that he endured it at the hands of a ‘cohort’ of soldiers: some 500 men primed to participate in a violent and bloody spectacle. Chapter 3 contrasts the portrayal of the crucifixion in Christian art with the sparse details of the Gospel texts before exploring the development of Roman crucifixion in relation to earlier impalement punishments and suspension executions, again viewing this information through the lens of more recent events.

In his review of the edited volume When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse,[2] Robin Gill appears to have overlooked the fact that Tombs treats the stripping and the possibility of further sexual violence separately as, respectively, fact and well-informed supposition.[3] The Gospel accounts are clear that the stripping occurred and this Tombs correctly, in my opinion, describes as sexual abuse. Because we are not told the detail of what happened at the praetorium, Tombs is careful to note that any further sexual violence was possible, indeed likely, but that we cannot know for sure. I find his argument indisputably compelling. Human beings have the capacity for indescribable violence, especially when they are seeking to maintain power. Philip Zimbardo demonstrated in his analysis of the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib how readily many of us become bystanders, if not active collaborators, in the perpetration of gross injustice and harm if the conditions support it.[4]

This book will, and arguably should, be hugely disturbing for all who brave its pages. Some readers will undoubtedly find it triggering and may, as Tombs suggests, choose to avoid the more explicitly violent material. However, it is a book that theologians and church leaders would do well to engage with in full if they are able to. For those for whom the accounts of violence necessary to establish Tombs’ argument will be too hard to read, a gentler approach might be to consider the crucifixion narratives through Bible study, such as the one designed by Tombs in the Open Access resource Accompanying Survivors of Sexual Harm: A Toolkit for Churches (ed. Emily Colgan and Caroline Blyth, The Shiloh Project, 2022). Tombs also includes a contextual Bible study in chapter 4 of this book.

Some will regard Tombs’ arguments with abhorrence. In the culture of toxic masculinity and homophobia that still persists in the church, the notion that the male saviour was sexually violated will be anathema – ‘real men’ don’t get raped. Additionally, reminders of both sex and death heighten our own innate mortality salience, arousing in us a terrifying awareness of our human fragility – which is arguably why images of the crucifixion over the centuries have been sanitised – and Tombs will be taking some readers beyond their comfort zones in this respect. A crucified God who was also sexually violated will shake the foundations for some.

In chapter 4, ‘Resurrection,’ Tombs outlines the value of this difficult work. Hostility to the idea of Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse is indicative, Tombs notes, of the way in which those people may perceive victims of sexual harm. Historically, churches have sought hide abuse within faith-based settings and to stigmatise and shame victims. Change in this regard is slow. Jesus’ experience ‘invites churches to develop a more serious theological conversation on sexual violence and upholding human dignity.’ In making the theological connections between Jesus’ suffering as a victim of sexual as well as physical harm and unspeakable public humiliation, those who struggle with this concept or who are prone to victim-blaming may be helped to reassess their beliefs and consequently to take a more informed and compassionate approach to the issue of sexual harm, and churches may be brought to an awareness of the damage caused by secondary victimisation (the harm caused when victims are not believed or are stigmatised). Theological reflection on Jesus as a victim of sexual violation invites churches towards both repentance and redress. This chapter is arguably the most powerful and I find Tombs’ theology of the cross and resurrection (albeit necessarily brief in this focus series) more exciting, more grounded, and more credible than any I have encountered before now.

The notion that Jesus, too, suffered sexual violence will not resonate with everyone who has experienced sexual harm (see p. 76). One survivor of church-based abuse I spoke to felt that Jesus had not experienced the harm that comes from being abused in secret, of having to maintain the secret, and of being disbelieved and stigmatised for eventually speaking out. For others, Tombs’ hypothesis may be of comfort, and if one survivor of sexual violence is helped by the idea that Jesus understood, from painful personal experience, what she too has been through, then Tombs has done his job. But more than this, if this work enables churches – congregations and church leaders – to recognise that even Jesus suffered sexual harm – it follows that they must take a more compassionate, a more informed, and a more responsible approach to the scourge that is sexual violence in the church. If Jesus suffered sexual harm, the stigma begins to fall away. If, conversely, Christians cannot accept the possibility that Jesus too, was a victim of sexual violence, then they have not truly understood the incarnation.

Feature image: “Cross Church 03,” courtesy of JoLynne Martinez on Flickr (https://flic.kr/p/2gpbXAV)


[1] In his review of When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse (ed. Jayme R. Reaves, David Tombs and Rocío Figueroa, London: SCM Press, 2021) for the Church Times (‘What the Soldiers Did,’23 July 2021) Robin Gill commented that while some readers supported Tombs’ suggestion that Jesus was sexually abused as a ‘natural corollary’ of the strippings mentioned in the Gospels, others ‘felt that it directed attention away from the sheer barbarity of Roman crucifixion or that it trivialised the experience of powerless women who have been brutally raped and/or genitally mutilated.’ This statement strikes me as somewhat anomalous in two respects. First, in its inference that the abusive act of stripping a person naked in the presence of a hostile crowd is not, in itself, barbaric, and second, in its assertion that Jesus being sexually violated and humiliated by a cohort of soldiers in the lead-up to a drawn-out public execution in some way detracts from the experiences of women who have been raped or mutilated.

[2] Edited by Jayme R. Reaves, David Tombs and Rocío Figueroa, London: SCM Press, 2021.

[3] Gill, ‘What the Soldiers did.’

[4] Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: How Good People Turn Evil, New York: Random House, 2007.

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Q&A with David Tombs about his new book – available open access

There is a new book in our Routledge Focus series, ‘Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible’ and this one is available from today and open access.

The author is David Tombs and the book’s title is The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross (London: Routledge, 2023). 

For the open access ebook DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429289750 

For further information and the hardback: www.routledge.com/9780367257651

Tell us about yourself. How does your book relate to your work as a whole and how did this book come about?

When I was an undergraduate studying Philosophy and Theology I picked up a copy of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s book A Theology of Liberation in Blackwell’s bookshop in OxfordIt is a classic work, but I had no real idea of that when I first looked at it. Instead, I was drawn to the distinctive cover image. I had visited Peru the previous summer and the cover captured what I had seen there in two readily recognisable scenes. One scene showed a poor community, the other showed a row of military police. It was not what I expected from a theology book. 

I started reading the work of Gutiérrez and then the works by other liberation theologians in the library. I was struck by the passion and compassion they brought to their work and their belief that theology can make a radical difference when it is rooted in what they called ‘an option’ for the oppressed. Their concern for poverty and injustice guided a liberative approach to theological and biblical work. From then on, I have been interested in how faith and theology can make a difference, and how reading the Bible from a specific context can offer new insights into the text. In my theological work in the UK, then in Ireland, and now in New Zealand, I continue to seek insights from liberation and contextual theologies for my thinking and writing.

The specific prompt for the book dates back to the 1990s. I was a PhD student at Heythrop College, London, and working on liberation theology and Christology. Following a visit to El Salvador in the summer of 1996, I read a story of a sexualised execution that occurred during the war in the 1980s. It was a very confronting testimony and I wanted to understand more. First I asked myself why it had happened. Then I asked why it did not get more attention.  Even a theologian as insightful and courageous as Jon Sobrino who had worked in El Salvador for many years seemed to be silent on this type of violence. So I read more about sexualised violence during torture and state terror in Latin America. Then I  started to explore the relevance of this to crucifixion. I first published on this in the article ‘Crucifixion, State Terror, and Sexual Abuse’ (1999) (see here). The book has been an opportunity to revisit this and develop the argument further. 

Last year, I co-edited the book When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse (SCM 2021) with Jayme Reaves and Rocío Figueroa. Scholars from Australia, the Bahamas, Botswana, Indonesia, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, and the USA, explored implications of acknowledging Jesus as a victim of sexual abuse. It was an opportunity to work with a fantastic group of colleagues and a really inspirational learning experience. It helped me see more clearly what a book like The Crucifixion of Jesus could support this area of research. 

What are the key arguments of your book?

The book investigates some disturbing elements of crucifixion that have only recently started to get attention. It starts with the Salvadoran execution I just mentioned and the impact this had on me. I then turn in Chapter 1 to the strippings of Jesus. These include the multiple strippings by the cohort of soldiers in Pilate’s palace (the praetorium) recorded by Mark and Matthew. In addition, there is the stripping of Jesus at the cross recorded by all four gospels. The strippings and the enforced nakedness of crucifixion are well attested in the gospels, and I would argue that the facts of these alone  are compelling reasons for acknowledging that Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse. 

I then ask whether Jesus might have experienced other forms of sexualised violence beyond the strippings. The evidence for further violence is less direct, and the answers less clear-cut than the strippings, but the questions are worth asking. Forced stripping often leads to further violence and Chapter 2 investigates whether there might be more to the mocking than is usually assumed. I look at what might be learnt from the rape, murder, and dismemberment of the Levite’s wife in Judges 19, and also at why the mockery that followed the death of Herod Agrippa in 44 CE might be relevant to the mockery of Jesus.

Chapter 3 turns to the horror and shame associated with crucifixion. It looks at passages by the Roman writer Seneca that suggest sexualised violations during crucifixion. This is explored with attention to ancient impalement practices and the common belief that the Romans used crucifixions but not impalement. I think the reality might have been more complicated, but the evidence is not easy to interpret. It  requires more research by specialists and I hope to encourage this work by others. Although Jesus’ experience of strippings and enforced nudity provide strong reasons for seeing him as a victim of sexual abuse, we don’t know—and will probably never know—whether there were further forms of sexualised violence in the mocking and crucifixion.

Chapter 4  discusses why this sort of research matters and what positive value might come from it. These are questions that I have often been asked;  I discuss them with attention to Christian belief in resurrection. I believe that recognising Jesus’ experience can help churches address victim-blaming and the perceived stigma associated sexual violence. For example, it can strengthen positive messages to survivors like ‘You are not alone’ and ‘You are not to blame’. Of course, churches should not need the experience of Jesus to prompt them to respond well to survivors. But in my experience it can be an effective way to open up a deeper conversation on how churches can do better.

What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

I am a theologian not a biblical scholar, so whilst I found the biblical discussion very interesting, and I hope it will be of interest to others, I also hope that some readers will be interested in the theological issues the book raises. For example, how this reading might offer a  better understanding of Jesus as fully human and vulnerable, or how it might challenge the assumption that the cross must be good. Sobrino speaks of ‘taking victims down from the cross’. I hope the book will encourage readers in churches to think about how recognition of Jesus’ experience might guide a better response to sexual violence. 

Please give us a quotation that captures something significant about your book and will make readers want to read the rest.

“This has been a difficult book to write, and it will almost certainly be a difficult book to read. But the book is driven by the conviction that the biblical text matters. It is also shaped by the belief that recognising and confronting violence—especially sexual violence—matters’”(p. 2).

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Reading with self-care when reading in vulnerability

Today’s post is by Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke, Co-Leader at The Ordinary Office

Twitter: @Dechurching

Email: [email protected]

In this piece, Christian, activist and survivor Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke reflects on her experience of reading the new book by David Tombs, The Crucifixion of Jesus: Torture, Sexual Abuse, and the Scandal of the Cross, which is the latest volume to appear in the Routledge Focus Series, “Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible” (see here).

The book is out today and open access! Please see here.

As its title already flags up, the content of David Tombs’ book is difficult. It deals with suffering, infliction of torture and sexualised abuse – but also with the horror of suppressing and denying such violence. Rebecca offers advice to fellow Christians about reading the book with an eye towards self-care. 

Reading With Self-Care When Reading In Vulnerability

Silence and violence. Key ideas throughout this book, and, as a package, something a person often doesn’t understand fully unless it touches their own life. Through their work, through anecdotal evidence. Through lived experience of a traumatic event. I’d go so far as to say silencing is an act of violence: from repeated neglect and dismissal of the same one’s voice every time a meeting is held, to the outright threats of “Don’t tell anyone!” which can follow a sexual assault. 

Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke, courtesy of the author.

My understanding of silence and violence is shaped by my own experience as a rape survivor. If we have the capacity (and only if), those of us who understand the complexities and repercussions of silence and violence have an opportunity to speak up, speak out and educate. We don’t have to agree on the ins and outs, the hows and whys, the extent to which we advocate. We don’t have to find the conversations comfortable or agree on the same premises. But neither can we dismiss very real possibilities and discussions which may prove revelatory, thought-provoking and immensely helpful to others.

Those of us working in and around Trauma Theology do this work not because we “enjoy” it, but out of a deep sense of justice, a calling even. Many in this area of work start from a place of lived experience, drawing from the well of those memories and the journeys back from their own trauma to speak into better practices for the future. Protecting the next “them,” when they could not be protected themselves. Others understand the societal and structural importance of safeguarding, protecting vulnerable people and supporting victims within a society that calls itself civilized and caring. Others still do it from a deep sense of conviction, that the work is right and important, and must be spoken out into the world whatever the cost. Professor David Tombs is absolutely part of this latter group.

This book gives careful attention to parts of the biblical text that have been ignored or overlooked or skated over. It invites the reader to confront these disturbing details. But one question is, how do we find out if something will be helpful or harmful to us before we choose to read a book? How can we know if it will harm us when the first of it we know is finding out it already has? How do we read difficult texts with self-care when we also want to inform our own healing journeys, in both vulnerability and faith?

Self-care as an active practice is vital when engaging in any form of study, activism or work on issues of violence. This is not an “airport book,” or something to be enjoyed by the pool with a Pina Colada. It will challenge you, shock you, upset you. It did all of those things to me. Unsurprisingly. The crucifixion of Jesus was, after all, a shocking and upsetting event, which has sometimes been sanitized. Over the years we have even come to wear crucifixes as jewellery and display their representations on our church walls. But nobody would contemplate admiringly or for long a true representation of the naked, exposed, beaten, bloodied and abused Jesus, not on the walls of the Sistine Chapel or anywhere else. Yet still, for all the brutalities confronted in this book, I encourage you to read it if you can.

Treat this book gently. As a rich, high percentage dark chocolate bar. It has much to offer and you can be nourished by it. But it may also bring a bitterness you will have to make a choice about. You can wrinkle your nose in disgust and push the remainder away. Or, you can reflect, let the taste linger and actually, as a whole, see there is more than just the sharpness which gave you cause to pause.

Treat yourself gently. You are a beloved child of God. You are treasured, and blessed. The themes explored in this book are painful. If you are not ready to explore them, then please, don’t. Those involved in the creation of this book do not want to cause distress or harm; that is the exact opposite of the intent. If you wish to try, why not set aside a period of time with a comforting drink and a scented candle, calming music, in a familiar space, with someone you trust on standby in a nearby room or at the end of the telephone. Try one chapter. Connect with the premise of the book in Chapter 1, understand what the book is looking to explore. Then put the book down, and give yourself some time to reflect. From there you can make your decision about proceeding, in discussion with your trusted friend if you need to. 

You may find you devour this book page after page with keen interest, reaching the end feeling like you have completed a sprint. Feeling deeply heard, represented and understood on a level never before reached. Feeling free. On the other hand, you may need to take a chapter, a section, a page at a time, as you would a devotional, establishing a safe space within which to contain your reading, process your thoughts and let them settle before re-entering the world. 

You could start a journal, either writing your responses or channelling them through art, helping you express what arises through your engagement with the book. You may want to consider reaching out to your church pastoral team if you have one, a spiritual director or a therapist should you require. Honouring yourself and your responses is vital. However you respond to this book, listen to what your body is telling you and give yourself what you need to remain well.

For that is the root of all of this. Central to Christianity is the belief Jesus came, lived, and died for us, so we may be made well. In all his ways, he taught us. Through the brutal shame of his sexual assault and murder, followed by the subtle beauty of his resurrected life, he taught us how to live again too. How to be in our own violated, traumatized body-minds. To have simple conversations with trusted friends. Breaking bread. Sharing vulnerabilities. Just being with your favourite people in safe places, by the waters, on long walks, reconnecting with yourself and them as you discover who you are in light of what has happened to you. I often wonder if what Jesus went through, and indeed what the disciples went through in witnessing, was just so brutal, that a soft period between resurrection and ascension was a necessary journey of healing and recovery for all of them, creating the space for the Holy Spirit to subsequently descend.

I pray this book gives you this gift. By journeying through and learning just how much Jesus suffered, you may see just how much he can, and has, walked with us through our suffering. That there is nothing we can experience which is too shameful, too awful, too degrading or horrific, that God would turn away. When we feel the worst has been done to us, our worth has been destroyed and our personhood diminished forever. No, my siblings. God has been through it too. 

In Chapter 4 David Tombs explores how, in recognising the full extent of the crucifixion pain, we too can also realise the full extent of the resurrection’s power. Know that Jesus will walk with each and every one of us for as long as our resurrection journey takes. So, if you can read this book, in a safe, measured and supported way, I wholeheartedly encourage you to do so. 

So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:36)

Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke

Content Warning. This book by David Tombs includes graphic descriptions and examples of sexual assaults. If you are a survivor who is still early in your recovery, I would suggest you exercise caution in reading Chapters 2 and 3 in particular, making sure your support network is on hand. Please be aware that the content might trigger traumatic memories, cause you undue distress, or put your mental wellbeing at risk.

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