Pushback Series

16 Days of Celebrating Activism… Calling Out – and then some!

Today we celebrate calling out – but that needs a bit of qualification and explanation.

‘Calling out’ refers to a direct challenge to what someone has said or done. Usually, ‘calling out’ is performed publicly, including (indeed very often) on social media. The intention of calling out is to confront and to expose someone, or something.

Calling out can be, or can get, nasty; it can escalate; and sometimes it can expose the caller outer as hypocritical, or attention-seeking, or band-wagoning. 

But calling out can also be a registration of protest, an on-the-spot expression that something is wrong and needs to change. It can be a first and decisive and vocal step in a process of tackling wrongs. 

Let’s face it, we have had some big wake-up calls, including in academia, showing up that very many things have been rotten for too long. Sexual harassment and abuse on campuses, to give just one example, have been rampant, and often ignored, or tacitly, or resignedly, accepted. Processes for addressing sexual harassment and abuse, meanwhile, are often ineffectual. (For some careful investigative work on this topic by Al Jazeera, see ‘Degrees of Abuse’, here). Other kinds of bullying, systemic inequality, discrimination, and abuse are also entrenched.

This year, the Shiloh Project hosted the pushback series to give a platform to speaking up about some of the things that are wrong in academia. We heard from an anonymous feminist scholar who eventually left, defeated, the conservative theological college where she had worked for multiple years. We heard also from Pauline scholar Grace Emmett, Buddhism scholars Amy Langenberg and Ann Gleig, theologian Karen O’Donnell, Hebrew Bible scholar Francesca Stavrakopoulou, and our own co-director Chris Greenough. Each spoke—if sometimes with caution and trepidation, mindful of how risky it can be to speak up or call out—of how they have been undermined and thwarted, intimidated, and maligned, in response to their research, often by other academics. 

We also published a response to the ‘I’m back!’ statement of Jan Joosten, which he wrote shortly after completing his sentence. Joosten’s statement elicited many indignant Twitter comments from biblical scholars and, not long after, a panel discussion with the title ‘The Ethics of Citation: Sexual Abusers in Biblical Studies’. This panel comprised Stephen Young, Emily Schmidt, and Mark Leuchter, and was chaired by Meredith Warren (see here). The discussion covers a range of people, offences, and situations, and is largely exploratory. It asks, ‘is it ethical to cite sexual abusers?’

It is, I agree, important to think about this question. But it is not in every case straightforward to answer with either an unqualified ‘yes’ or an unqualified ‘no’. Where Joosten is concerned, I, for one, will not be citing him any time soon. I have cited Joosten in the past, prior to his conviction (see my earlier post, here). I will not cite his scholarship now, for two reasons. The first reason is that since Joosten was found guilty by a court of law for dreadful crimes on a large scale and this became public, I see him first and foremost as a sex offender. For me, this now overshadows any admiration, or respect I may have had for his scholarship in the past. When I see his name now, the first thing I think of is not his erudition, but that 28,000 items of violent child pornography were found in his possession. The second reason is that I see no signs of any attempts at reparation or restorative justice in Joosten’s statement.

There are still questions I grapple with and that the panel discussion—which rightly shifts focus to victims and survivors and calls out and condemns sexual abusers—doesn’t probe fully. How responsible are we as readers for background checking authors we cite? Is hearsay ever a legitimate basis, or only conviction? Does not citing apply only to authors convicted of sexual abuses, and if so, why? Why not authors guilty of other abuses, too, like environmental destruction, drug dealing, armed robbery, business malpractices… because these crimes also have grave consequences. Do we declare all our own privileges and detriments? Do we not cite the work of scholars if they are known to hold views we object to (e.g. on matters of sexual orientation and gender identity, on abortion or Zionism), even if they or we are writing on entirely other topics? I find myself still contending with some of these questions. And I will continue to contend with them, because they matter to me. 

I also grapple with how the discussion about those convicted of sexual abuse can move forward, because the idea that anyone and everyone ever convicted of a grave offence is evermore excluded, also does not sit easy with me. What if they contribute to reparative programmes determined by survivors, for instance? Or what if they participate in restorative justice initiatives, where survivors receive a direct apology? In other words, calling out and openly identifying a misdeed or a crime is important—but it is not and should not be the end to it.

Back in 2019, Barack Obama spoke about ‘call-out culture’ and how calling someone out for something they did or didn’t do, and then sitting back, is not activism. As he went on to say, ‘the world is messy’ and ‘there are ambiguities’. There’s more to do and it’s not straightforward.  

Calling out matters. Being called out can make us more aware. But, ideally, calling out opens up, rather than concludes, engagement. It’s only in the opening up that activism can flourish.

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Clemency and Privilege and Abusers: Another Response

The Shiloh Project logo.

In June of last year, shortly after the public revelations about the conviction of Jan Joosten, then Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford, for possession of staggering amounts of child pornography, I published a post with the title ‘Privilege Beyond Bounds’ (see here). This is a follow-up, in the light of Joosten’s publication of a statement on (see here).

Exhibit A: IICSA, the Independent Inquiry Child Sexual Abuse, has demonstrated that religious actors, factors, and institutions have been and continue to be in deep when it comes to sexual abuse, including of children. The evidence is overwhelming (see here) and has recently been widely reported in the mainstream press.

Exhibit B: Reliable statistics are difficult to obtain but all indications are that crimes of sexual violence, including crimes related to what is called ‘extreme pornography’, are rampant. Conviction rates are, of course, much lower than incidence. The harm caused and the social cost of such crimes, for victims in particular, but also for many others, including those who work with perpetrators and victims, are profound, far-reaching, and long-term.

Exhibit C: When I was 13, I saw the film Death Wish II, with Charles Bronson. I wish I hadn’t seen it. It was an R16 film (I think) and so I shouldn’t have seen it at my age. The rape scene early in the film has etched itself into my memory. It was traumatising. I am not suggesting it was anything like the trauma of abuse. I’m saying shocking images stay with us.

Exhibit D: Like everyone else who has wide-ranging networks of family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, I have encountered many addicts with various addictions (most common being alcoholism). Most of these addicts do not describe themselves as cured. Many describe themselves as struggling with their addiction, sometimes as managing their addiction. Many do not (or for a long time did not) acknowledge or admit to their addiction, or to the damage it causes.

Into this line-up of exhibits comes the statement from Jan Joosten. Apparently, it was posted on the day of Yom Kippur, the Great Day of Atonement. This will have been deliberate and strategic.

A few quick and important qualifications before turning to Joosten’s statement.

  1. Yes, the ‘exhibits’ above allude both to reports and statistics and to personal observations. All of these are kinds of data. The so-called ‘objective’ and the so-called ‘subjective’ both yield data. Indeed, the sexual abuse of children is a topic that makes me respond emotionally – with horror and outrage and despair. I make no apology for this. I do not believe an emotional response, or a response informed by personal experience, is any less valid.
  2. A post like this serves to give Joosten a platform. I have misgivings about that. I much prefer to champion the incredible research and publications of people like Gordon Lynch, Monica Rey, Gerald West, Ericka Dunbar, and the many others who have, including on forums like The Shiloh Project, shown how research can advance social justice and positive change. I do think, however, it is important to respond to Joosten’s statement. It is another step in our pushback series.
  3. Following on from Point 2, there is so much more to be said on what this post only brushes on – especially concerning the many, many systemic and intersectional ways and means by which members of minoritized and oppressed groups (the socio-economically deprived, citizens of The Two Thirds world, refugees, LGBTQ+ persons, to name just a few) are disproportionately vulnerable to violence, including to sexual violence and trafficking, while those with privilege, even when caught in criminal activity, seem rather impervious, often barely breaking their stride.

Joosten’s statement is as follows:

“After having been sentenced to one year in June 2020, I was released on 11 September 2021. I will never stop feeling remorse for what I did—offending the honor of children and participating in a process that harmed them severely. I also deeply regret the suffering I brought to my family, to friends, colleagues, and students. I cannot set things right. But I do try, in a modest way, to make amends. One good thing that has come out of all this is that I have been able to break with an addiction that had held me for years.

Taking my inspiration from Ezekiel 33:11, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live,’ I wish to make a fresh start. I have changed, but my professional interests, training and abilities are still with me. I plan to go back to work, researching, perhaps publishing, and—who knows?—teaching in the field of Hebrew and biblical studies. I appeal to the clemency of the scholarly world—researchers, students, and publishers. Jan Joosten”

Here is someone who was caught and convicted for possession of some 28,000 images and videos of child pornography. According to newspaper reports, these offences spanned at least six years. There was no mention of Joosten seeking any therapy or clemency until after he was caught and his conviction imminent. This was so despite knowing his actions to be both wrong and illegal.

Joosten’s sentence was light given the scale of his criminal activity. Moreover, he remained, research active in some capacity, albeit with a low profile. According to Wikipedia, ‘Joosten still holds a role at the University of Strasbourg’. Moreover, his profile remained up and he has corresponded with other scholars (see the comments section here).

In his statement, Joosten acknowledges ‘remorse’ for ‘offending the honor of children’ (a strange choice of expression to my ears) and for ‘participating in a process that harmed them severely’. He also acknowledges the suffering he brought to persons in his family, social, and work circles. True, he cannot go back in time and undo any of what he did; but this statement is still a long way off from persuading (me at least) that Joosten really ‘gets’ how he comes across, which is as glossing over his crimes and as arrogant.

Granted, is not the ideal forum for it – but this statement is not anything like the victim-focused ‘full disclosure’ required at the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa, for instance, or the earnest reflection, leading to amends at the heart of Yom Kippur (e.g. see here).

What is this ‘modest way’ in which Joosten is making amends? Is he working with law enforcement agencies to identify and bring to trial other sex offenders? Is he helping with grant applications to address and prevent spiritual and sexual abuse? Is he doing voluntary work to benefit communities vulnerable to sex trafficking and other exploitations? Is he finding ways to help widening participation students and emerging scholars from under-represented groups? Is he trying to be mindful of his privilege and of his entitlement?

Rather miraculously, Joosten claims to have broken with his addiction. This addiction held him – like some monstrous jailer (again, responsibility seems to be being pushed away a bit here). If – unlike the vast majority of addicts in my experience – Joosten has found a way to cast off in a mere year an addiction that made him for at least six years ‘particate in a severely harmful process’, a process, or better scandal, that is costing and blighting the lives, prospects, potential, and capacity for joy and fulfilment of thousands upon thousands of children, it would be good to know how this works. I find it hard to believe that Joosten is no longer seeing in his mind’s eye the images he pored over for so many weeks and years. I find it hard to believe that an addiction that enabled him to lead a double life, regularly visiting what he (ickily) called his ‘secret garden’, which he claimed he knew to be wrongful, has been so easily cast off.

Joosten now wishes ‘to make a fresh start’ because he has ‘changed’. He plans to go back to work. It’s rather as though he’s had a ‘time out’ or a dip into another career that wasn’t enough to his liking. It feels a bit like damage limitation before ‘back to business as usual’. But that just doesn’t feel right in this case. For good measure, the Bible is quoted: If the Bible says the wicked can turn from their ways, then why shouldn’t ‘the scholarly world’ give ‘changed’ Joosten the clemency he wants? It’s almost as if refusal of clemency would now be unreasonable, un-biblical.

I know there are very many paedophiles and sex offenders across the world. Even if we take just the ones who have been tried and convicted, it is impossible to keep all of them under surveillance, let alone locked up. I am not suggesting that Joosten be imprisoned forevermore. I’m also not crying for blood – literally, or metaphorically.

I accept that he cannot undo the past and that he is sorry he was caught, sorry that he lost his prestige, and sorry that he brought distress to his family members. I find all of that emotionally plausible. I am less persuaded that he truly understands the magnitude of the crimes for which he was convicted, that he has embarked on making amends, that he has changed, and moved on from addiction. I find all of those implausible, based on the albeit succinct statement, earlier exchanges (see my previous post), and experience of addicts.

Clemency… that is, the quality or disposition of showing compassion, leniency, mercy, or forgiveness, in judging or in punishing. I don’t see myself as representative of, or as representing, ‘the scholarly world’ and I don’t think that as someone who wasn’t anywhere near the frontlines of the grave harm Joosten wrought it’s mine to give.

But I don’t buy this.

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An Epitaph for the Feminist Biblical Scholar

Today’s post is another contribution to our ‘Pushback Series‘ that we began earlier in the year. It is a reflection from an anonymous contributor about her time as a feminist biblical scholar at a conservative theological college. We have made this reflection anonymous because the politics of such theological networks can have a negative impact on the reputation of scholars who advocate for justice and change.

An Epitaph for the Feminist Biblical Scholar

It is with a telling kind of trepidation that I put down in writing something of my years as a lecturer in a conservative theological college. I’ve started this story several times and have been unable to finish it because it is painful. I survived 15 years in a liminal and toxic space. This is an epitaph of sorts.

Why stay in such a space layered as it was with thinly veiled microaggressions, benevolent violence and gaslighting?  It began as it does for many, as a fresh-faced postgraduate student, a woman with a feminist ethic and a gift for reading the biblical text.  It begins with idealism, the belief that being on the right side of history means that surely things must improve, but it ends with the final turns of the screw of structural discrimination.

Unfortunately, over time my own idealism turned to cynicism. I have seen young women enter the school during my time with that same belief on their faces.  I admire but also feel concern for the young women entering the school now.  Some so clearly have hopes of catalysing its transformation into an inclusive space. Because women do not have longevity in this theological school, the history of women scholars is incomplete there.  Each new year or new generation seems to start anew without the knowledge of the generation of women that came and went before.  So many of us have gone.  I’m not sure who will know or be able to call to mind my own struggle there for pay equity, equity of work conditions, better representation of both women students and staff, and justice.

This isn’t the experience of men in the school who seem to look about in confused wonder when the toxic experience of women is raised.  The niche in this country for biblical studies is gendered and well-guarded.  Certain men experience long tenures in theology at the institution.  Their tenures end with handshakes, ceremony and adulation.  There is a congratulatory and beneficial circle of male-to-male recognition that operates at several layers.  The theological school is male dominant, with long periods of time without any women in a full-time role, other than in administration. A few young women were employed in low paid, casual contract graduate assistant roles.  These graduate assistants were often counted in statistics to make the theological school seem less male dominant.

I was the only woman for a long time in the institution with an established research background in biblical literature. I was granted the occasional feminist or critical theory research supervision in theology but only if the student could not be convinced to undertake a more ‘serious’ topic.  I did supervise some marvellous postgraduate research in areas concerning the Bible and sexuality. Working with these students was rewarding, even though a melancholic thread in the work was knowing that, like myself, there was little chance they would ever make a living in theology regardless of the quality of their work. 

Theological institutions do not always operate on merit.  Success in research, in teaching and in terms of the usual measures of performance is no guarantee for employment nor equitable treatment.  Even less respected is a woman daring to engage in anything close to feminist, critical or non-traditional studies of the Bible.

These confessional institutional spaces are a challenging place for women working in feminist and progressive fields of biblical literature.  At the time I left the theological school for a university position, the evangelical ideology had become particularly claustrophobic.  There had been moves to ensure that no research could be undertaken that fell outside a conservative interpretation of the institution’s statement of faith.  Academic freedom was not a concept that was to be tolerated any longer.  Ironically, my own work had never been raised as an issue for the simple reason that it had never been read by anyone in the theological school.  My feminist biblical research hid for 15 years in plain sight. 

My time at the theological school ended predictably: with the above mentioned thinly veiled microaggressions, an apparently intentional project of benevolent violence, and a truly horrible period of gaslighting at the end.  I had seen this same mode used on other women.  For some, the tack was through redundancy – outwardly the narrative would be that they were surplus to requirements, but the inside story might be that their work on certain theologies was upsetting donors.  For others, the creation of intolerable and inequitable work conditions, teamed with a narrative consistently relayed of neither fitting nor belonging, ended with a slow but purposed alienation leaving me little option but to find work elsewhere.

I’ll end this sad tale here.  I have certain griefs around this period in my life that will take some time to heal.  I am still able to undertake research in biblical literature in the university environment, but no longer have the same opportunities to work with a new generation of feminist biblical studies postgraduates. 

*Image: Mina Fonda Ochtman, “The Evening Lamp” (c. 1900)

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Becoming a Pauline Scholar

Today’s post in the Pushback series is from Grace Emmett (King’s College London). Grace recently defended her PhD thesis on the topic of the apostle Paul’s masculinity. You can find out more about her research on her Humanities Commons page, or by following her on Twitter.

I recently defended my PhD thesis on Paul and masculinity, entitled ‘Becoming a Man’, a nod to 1 Cor 13:11 wherein Paul claims to have ‘become a man’. Essentially, my thesis turns this claim into a series of questions: what sort of man does Paul become, and what’s the process by which he negotiates masculinity? Once the corrections are out the way I will, apparently, have become something myself: a Pauline scholar.

I say ‘apparently’ for two reasons. First, I am hardly expecting an ontological change to happen when I take on the title ‘Doctor’. I will not suddenly transform into a person who has expertise relating to Paul; rather, that knowledge has been curated over a number of years and will always be a work-in-progress. Second, despite finishing the thesis and passing my viva, I still struggle to view myself as a ‘proper’ Pauline scholar.

So why exactly is this a struggle? I am hardly the first person to have experienced imposter syndrome, after all. And yet the nature of my imposter syndrome does, I think, have some specific ties to the nature of my research. Researching masculinity has often felt like a peripheral pursuit within Pauline studies, an experience no doubt true for many others employing modes of analysis that go beyond a strict historical-critical approach. This happens in explicit ways—a comment left online, for example, mocking my research and signed off simply with ‘1 Timothy 2:12–14’. But this impression of being on the fringes asserts itself in more subtle ways too: either when others seem genuinely confused about what a study of Paul’s masculinity might entail, or, at the other end of the spectrum, when those who feel strongly about defending a particular version of Paul’s masculinity feel compelled to interrogate my methodology in a manner that amounts to ‘methodsplaining’.[1]

Serving as a counterpart to the term ‘mansplaining’, ‘methodsplaining’ functions as a form of gatekeeping, whereby proponents of traditional research methods (e.g. historical-critical) determine what is and is not a legitimate research approach. This is more than just something that happens on a one-to-one level; it is fundamental to the way that we cultivate knowledge within biblical studies. Method gatekeeping happens from the outset in terms of what we privilege teaching to students when they first embark on a biblical studies degree, through to the way we structure opportunities to present in academic spaces, like the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature. It doesn’t take long to notice the units that have a ‘marked’ interpretive approach (e.g. ‘Feminist Hermeneutics of the Bible’), in contrast to those that are ‘unmarked’ (e.g. ‘Pauline Epistles’).

Even the means by which one accesses these types of academic spaces is already structured in such a way that it is easier for some rather than others to participate. In the course of the global struggle with the coronavirus pandemic, events offered in a virtual format have demonstrated that greater accessibility is possible when participation is not restricted to those who can only attend in person. As such, the cancellation of the international meeting of SBL (rather than migrating it online) has denied many researchers residing outside of the States a more accessible opportunity to participate in the Society this year—a fundamental reason why the international meeting exists in the first place.[2]

More commendable is SBL’s recent announcement that the annual meeting will be offered in a dual format, with some sessions offered virtually and others in-person.[3] Although not the hybrid format many of us had hoped and asked for, it is, understandably, going to take some time to work out what the ‘new normal’ is for large-scale conferences and how we can move forward in a way that prioritises inclusivity. In the long term, offering virtual participation will benefit a whole host of individuals: disabled scholars, pregnant scholars, scholars with caring responsibilities, unvaccinated scholars, and many others for whom international travel is restrictive—to say nothing of the environmental cost of requiring some members to fly thousands of miles to participate.

Failing to prioritise inclusivity limits the potential richness of biblical studies. Attending to who is able to participate in academic conversations about biblical texts is interwoven with how those texts are studied. Denise Buell explicates this relationship well when she writes:

It is thus of crucial importance to attend to what is habitual and routine in our methods and approaches and not only to the ‘body count’ of who gets PhDs, appointments, tenure, and promotion. That is, attention to who participates at the undergraduate, graduate, and faculty levels in New Testament and early Christian studies matters but always in the context of the very shapes and orientations of the spaces, physical and intellectual, in which this work unfolds. Reorienting the fields of biblical and early Christian studies is an undertaking that also requires deep engagement with the histories of our interpretive approaches and willingness to adopt new perspectives.

Buell is here primarily writing about the way whiteness is intertwined with New Testament and early Christian studies (and see Ekaputra Tupamahu’s recent essay for how whiteness informs particular research topics, such as the Synoptic ‘problem’). Buell’s helpful observation about the intertwining of the who and the how has also been a useful prism for me to reflect on gendered dynamics within Pauline studies.

The way that masculinities research has felt peripheral mirrors the way that I as a woman can feel peripheral in academic spaces. It is hardly necessary to repeat here that biblical studies remains a male-dominated guild (with 75% of its members identifying as men in the most recently available statistics). And so it is not a surprise that this manifests in ways such as being asked if I’m the wife of the male colleague I’m standing next to at a conference drinks reception. Or being told by a senior scholar early on in my PhD to be prepared for the fact that if I presented on Paul in a forum like SBL that some men might actually get up and leave, unwilling to accept that a woman might have something worthwhile to say about Paul. Simply being warned about the potential of such dynamics in an academic context made me wonder how welcome I and my research were in such spaces, ludicrous as such a warning seemed.

There are two scripts of normativity at work here: one sketches out the contours of what a biblical scholar should look like (which extends beyond gender of course), while the other gestures to how a biblical scholar (perhaps particularly a Pauline one) should conduct their research. While one might expect that these undercurrents of masculine- and method-normativity are most consistently embodied by men, women are by no means immune from enacting these scripts too. In some ways, it is as a result of the actions of other women that I have felt most undermined. There is one particular incident that sticks out in my mind that I would eventually come to label as misogynistic, and it was reading Hindy Najman’s essay ‘Community and Solidarity: Women in the Academy’, recommended by a friend, that helped me finally give that particular incident a name. It is this quote in particular that I’ve turned over in my mind many times since: ‘We need to watch the behaviour of women against women, even by those who write treatises against sexism. We are all vulnerable and we are all capable of acts of violence’.

It is for all these reasons, then, that I often do not feel like a ‘proper’ Pauline scholar. ‘Proper’ is, of course, doing a lot of unspoken work in that sentence, guided by the scripts of masculine- and method-normativity to dictate what a model Pauline scholar should look like and how they should behave. But perhaps I can embrace being an improper Pauline scholar instead, with the hope that what constitutes ‘proper’ Pauline scholarship might itself become a more exciting, expansive, and inclusive proposition. In this sense, I hope I add to the ‘body count’, as Buell puts it, when it comes to gender diversity. But more than that I hope that my work adds to the ‘manuscript count’, as it were, contributing to other longstanding efforts to interrogate how our field is constructed and imagine how it might be reconstructed.

[1] Thanks to Dr Chris Greenough for introducing me to this term, coined by sociologist Dr Jane Ward.

[2] It is wonderful news that STECA is planning to offer an alternative forum for those who had papers accepted at ISBL to present.

[3] The efforts of Professor Candida Moss and Dr Meghan Henning were instrumental in encouraging SBL to reconsider its original plans for a solely in-person meeting format.

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In My Defence

Today’s post is from Karen O’Donnell, Coordinator for the Centre for Contemporary Spirituality at Sarum College. Here Karen reflects on her own experiences of being on the receiving end of attacks in academic settings, and offers advice on how we can act in solidarity when we witness such distressing encounters.

Early on in my doctoral studies, I became quite fascinated with the way in which the battle metaphor is used in the viva and in the presentation of one’s research. It was and is still quite common to talk of having to “defend” your ideas; the idea of attack is implicit in the construction of your defence. I think I was fascinated, because the department I studied in for my doctoral research (Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Exeter) was not like that at all. Research seminars were rigorous conversations but never attacks requiring defence. In fact, it became a running joke about how polite and courteous everyone was in asking questions after a paper!

I have since been in situations where such collegiality and respect has not been a given. A few years ago, in quite quick succession, I twice found myself on the receiving end of a senior white male academic’s irrational anger. In both cases, I had been invited to speak at an institution that was not my own. In both cases, these men felt it was appropriate to shout at me about how wrong I was in what I had said in the context of a research seminar. In one case, the man was angry that I hadn’t talked about sin in the way he thought was appropriate. In the other case, the man was angry that I had suggested that we, as a group of white theologians, were not the best group of people to make judgements about how people of colour might feel about something.

A few things surprised me about these encounters. I was surprised that these senior men, in their professional capacities, became so angry so quickly and felt that it was entirely ok to direct their anger and their verbal aggression (and in one case insults) toward me – a junior female scholar who was, at those times, precariously employed and just starting out on my academic career. I felt incredibly vulnerable. Especially as I looked around the rooms and found many of the rest of the people present avoiding making eye contact with me. This was my second surprise. I am well capable of fighting my own battles, and in both cases I did; I had to. But no one intervened on my behalf or said anything in solidarity. At least not until after. After both of these encounters, I had people come up to me and apologise for the way these men had behaved—not the men themselves—but their more junior colleagues. They said things like “Oh, he’s always like that” and “he’s done that before”.

These experiences led to me posting on Facebook—in the immediate aftermath of the second encounter; mainly, because I was very distressed, having a panic attack in my room, and miles away from any friends—about what had happened. Friends and colleagues were horrified but began to share other scenarios where senior white male academics had behaved in similar ways (the list of responses was shockingly long) and they had not intervened. They reflected on why. In some cases, it was pure shock that paralysed them in the moment. In other cases, it was anxiety around intervention that would somehow imply the person under attack needed rescuing. But what was really helpful was a conversation about preparing a response in advance. Something like, “X is well capable of fighting their own battles, but I want to note that I find this line of questioning / your approach / your anger inappropriate for this context.” I can fight my own battles, but in both of these cases, this small gesture of solidarity would have made all the difference. We should have rigorous conversations about our research, but no one should be made to feel vulnerable or fearful in their professional environments. We should be building each other up, not tearing each other down.

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Academics Behaving Badly

Today’s post is from Chris Greenough. Chris is Reader in Theology & Religion at Edge Hill University; he is also co-director of the Shiloh Project.

Before I started my second career as an academic, I’d enjoyed a really rewarding career in secondary education for fifteen years. I’d had various roles there – originally a French and Spanish teacher by training, I also did stints as an RE teacher, Head of Year, and Assistant Headteacher. It was challenging, nonetheless, and my latter role included responsibilities for safeguarding, child protection and pupil behaviour. The behaviour I’ve experienced in academia has been far more challenging than that in a setting of 11-16 year olds, as I go on to recount.

I completed my PhD while working full time in school, under the wonderful guidance of the most remarkable Deryn Guest. Eighteen months later, I secured my first full-time post in higher education, and was ecstatic. I didn’t land in a traditional Theology and Religious Studies department, but worked on subject knowledge development in initial teacher education.

Nine months later, I wanted to leave higher education and go back to the secondary classroom. I felt an imposter or, more precisely, was made to feel as if I didn’t belong. I was on the receiving end of numerous forms of uninvited ‘advice’: career advice, research advice and unwelcome advice in response to my work:

  • Unwanted career advice:

“Why don’t you move away from queer theology? That’s already x’s area”.

“Wouldn’t you be better doing something more traditional and, well, less controversial?”

“I think it would work better for you if your work was less queer and more theological.”

  • Uninvited research ratings:

“I’d probably give your work a 2* if I were rating it for REF”.

  • Unwelcome responses:

“I don’t really recommend your work to my postgraduates.”

And endless number of in-person, non-verbal responses such as eye-rolls, furrowed frowns, walking out mid-talk, sighing and huffing.

Perhaps I was too open. I had openly shared some of the inadequacies I was feeling. I tend to be quite an open person, and perhaps some academics were responding to that. Of course, isn’t behaviour like this expected in the competitive and hierarchical structures endemic in higher education?

More frustratingly, I didn’t react at the time. I stayed silent. I think I even thanked some people. Yet the experiences from some external colleagues had begun to cause real paralysis in my confidence. I really felt the sting of the critique, and in the moment, I was unable to distinguish between constructive criticism that would move my work on, and this faux criticism which was just the projection of someone’s ideologies or insecurities. 

Of course, I didn’t fit in.

My work seemingly didn’t fit in when I spoke to people about it. My PhD research was life-story research with non-normative Christians. Given the importance of queer theory to my work, I argued how queer approaches should not have a methodology – as methodology is a word that smacks of rigour, order, process – words that are unfitting with the spirit of queer. I’d queered my thesis (a play script in place of a literature review, an ‘undoing’ of methodology, and included resources all brought to me by the participants I dialogued with). So, to begin with, I broke the rules by refusing to repeat tired (not a typo) and tested methods.

Perhaps the perception from some was that my work was ‘unscholarly’. On the one hand, queer criticism is regarded as highly intellectual and is making inroads in many disciplines. Yet, on the other, when my call was to dismantle the production of theology and to queer conventions, it was perhaps a step too far for some. My experiences belie that fact there’s a disjuncture between some claims of the academy and the realities.

As a post-Christian, I wasn’t using confessional approaches, language or subtleties in the theology I was producing. I was gate-crashing. But that was precisely the point. Guest notes how the queer approaches disrupt “the traditional and cherished norms of historical-critical exegesis with all the force of several gate-crashers at a party from which they had long been excluded.”[1]

So despite the reception from a small minority of my peers in person, my research was building a momentum of its own. In publishing, queer work is appealing to the intellectual and methodological originality it is able to create. In reality, people police firmly erected walls around their disciplines.

The impact of these aggressions began to wear me down. I remember a meeting with my Dean of Faculty, where I told her of my intentions to move on and leave academia. She told me to use the responses I’d received as fuel to keep me going. My partner, also an academic, applauded me on ruffling feathers. I had enormous support internally from my University and wonderful colleagues. I had been awarded research leave just twelve months in to my first post and I was working on my second book at the time.

My personhood didn’t fit in. Growing up as a queer kid, I know by instinct and experience the lack of fit when I enter a space that isn’t welcoming to me. But I was also desperate to fit in, and kept on trying. Building up external relationships was vital to me.

Externally, I had got to know a couple of external people, whose kindness changed my perceptions and gave me new energy. The support of some wonderful academics really lifted me. And now, I work with a much wider, more inclusive community with the Shiloh Project – including all the wonderful authors and collaborators I’ve had the pleasure to work with.

The attacks from the academic community are now less frequent. They’ve largely been replaced with attacks from random people with opinions.

I have a folder in my email inbox I called ‘hate’. It currently stands at 3522 emails. Some may be from serial pen-pushers. I know this number of people have not engaged with my work sufficiently to draw any desired level of correspondence. In fact, I wish even half that number had been readers of my journal articles!

Work that is politically charged can leave the researcher exposed to vulnerabilities when it is public facing. The attacks are not concerned with the scholarly argument of the work, but with the position and identity of the researcher.

One piece I wrote provoked outraged responses. I wrote a short article for The Conversation, entitled Using the Bible against LGBTQ+ people is an abuse of scripture, and this kept the keyboard warriors busy. Yahoo News! had republished the article, and this became the platform for homophobic hatred to spew at me.

A very concerned reader took the time to purchase quite an expensive looking Bible and posted it to me at my work address. The sender had highlighted the clobber texts for me, with a handwritten note encouraging me to repent of my sin and cease my false preaching. It’s a shame the Bible contained the highlights, as I’d have got a few quid on eBay for it, I’m sure.

Why am I sharing this?

First, I do believe and argue that there is a transformative potential in sharing our experiences as a way of speaking back to our community. We should all be reflecting on how we behave and when we get it wrong.

Second, I share this to highlight how it is not always outsiders that stop us in our tracks with unexpected or uninvited critiques – academics do it to one another – far too frequently.

Third, I am sure many will relate to these experiences; it may resonate with others.

Finally, I share this as a warning. Next time, I won’t stay silent, or nod, or thank you for your unsolicited advice, or internalise my lack of fit as an imposter…

[1] Deryn Guest, “From Gender Reversal to Genderfuck: Reading Jael through a Lesbian Lens,” in Bible Trouble: Queer Reading at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship, eds., Teresa J. Hornsby and Ken Stone (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2010), 10.

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Public Menace: Spectrums of Abuse from the Personal to the Professional

Today’s post comes from Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter, UK. Alongside her academic publications, her work includes television and radio programmes, and a new book for general readers. In this powerful and personal post, Francesca narrates just some of the hateful abuse she has experienced as a woman and an atheist in biblical studies.

Stupid bitch. Dirty slut. Cunting whore. Just some of the names strangers have called me on social media, in emails, and – most unnervingly – in letters sent to my work address. We all know that misogynistic abuse awaits any woman who ‘dares’ to say anything in public. And for many of us, it’s just another form of the verbal abuse and harassment we’ve experienced since we were teenagers – the words shouted at us by men from across the street, hurled at us on public transport, hissed into our ears in crowded venues.

But nowadays, the hate speech I hear is often couched in religious language and imagery, because much of what I say in public is about the Bible. According to a ‘disciple of Christ’ (as one otherwise anonymous man labelled himself), I’m not just a slut, but the ‘Slut of Satan’. For Michelle from Ohio, I’m not just a bitch, but a ‘bitch dog of hell’ who deserves to die. For one man who sent me pornographic images, doctored with photos of my face, I’m a ‘temptress’ destined to have the sin raped out of me. Some might be shocked by this hate mail. Some might even laugh at this name-calling. Sometimes I did. Laughter is often one of my first, nervous reactions – but not the very first. Because the first thing I feel when this abuse appears is unsafe.

When I was invited to write this blogpost, I scrolled through my Facebook page, looking at the screengrabs and photos I’ve posted over the years, cataloguing some of this hate (only some – my family certainly don’t need to see the full, grotesque extent of these communications). Putting this material on Facebook, where only my friends and colleagues can see it, is one of my coping strategies – it goes some way to disempowering its force, turning it into something to be ridiculed. More importantly, sharing it with friends and colleagues almost makes it less personal, because it stops being private. But as I scrolled through the photos, I didn’t get very far. I just didn’t want to revisit it. Not that I needed to, because most of the abuse I receive is pretty much the same: alongside the threats, misogyny, and accusations of blasphemy and sinfulness, I’m accused of stupidity, of speaking falsehoods about matters I cannot possibly understand because I’m an atheist.

Is atheism just another convenient hook on which to hang this abuse? Maybe. After all, some of my Jewish and Christian colleagues have experienced similar attacks, simply for bringing biblical scholarship into wider public view. We seem to be perceived as trespassers, trampling on the unquestionable truth and sanctity of God’s written word. But the hate mail I receive suggests my atheism, gender, and the way I look and speak, seems to be a particularly toxic combination for those seeking to defend their God and their Bible from my public-facing work. In a confessional world in which expert knowledge about the Bible is traditionally embodied by men, a biblical scholar who happens to be both a woman and an atheist is simply too transgressive. My academic credentials, of course, are either irritating or irrelevant to these people. ‘How many people did you have to sleep with to get a PhD from Oxford?’ wrote someone who’d seen me on a TV show. It wasn’t the first time that type of question had been asked of me. And I don’t expect it will be the last.

But here’s where this blogpost gets harder to write. The hate mail I receive from strangers is just one end of a spectrum that extends into the academy in milder but no less upsetting, exhausting forms. To be completely honest (and this isn’t easy to say), I’m not going to describe the more troubling of my experiences, precisely because I fear the fall-out, both personally and professionally. And some of it I’m simply not permitted to discuss in public (let the reader understand). But other aspects will be all too familiar to others. Like many women scholars, I too have overheard academics in convention-centre bars speculating that my career successes reflect the sexual favours I may have promised or bestowed. And like colleagues whose work has been dismissed or misrepresented because of some aspect of their personhood (such as gender, race, sexuality, class, accent, age, or faith-stance), I’ve both experienced and been told of other scholars discrediting or downgrading my research, my teaching, my intellect, and even my morality because of my atheism, my gender, the way I look, or the way I dress. Let me be clear: this amounts to more than occasional flashes of academic sniping or competitiveness. This is the constant hum of the micro- and mini-aggressions many of us experience not only as background noise, but as the looping, grating soundtrack to our careers.  

What can we do about it? The obvious (if dauntingly monumental) task is to dismantle the power structures that enable all forms of abuse in academia. And crucially, that starts with dragging abusive and aggressive behaviours out into the light. But this can come at great personal and professional cost – which itself flags the extent to which the cultures in which we work need to change. I hope one day to be resilient enough to be able to dissect and reflect on my own experiences in ways that might play some part in helping to improve institutional policies and detoxify academic cultures. But in the meantime, I offer myself as an ally to those who are going through it – as I brace myself for whatever comes my way simply by writing this piece.

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Late Night Phone Alerts and Other Intrusions: What to expect when you write about sexual violation in religion.

Today’s post comes from Amy Paris Langenberg. Amy is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Eckerd College, Florida. Amy is the author of  Birth in Buddhism: The Suffering Fetus and Female Freedom (2017, Routledge). You can read an earlier post by Amy, together with Ann Gleig, here.) This time Amy reflects on her experiences as a scholar who writes about sexual violence in Buddhism.

I recently wrote a piece on Buddhist cases of sexual violation and the Buddhist understanding of consent that was published online in Tricycle, an American publication read by Buddhist practitioners, teachers, and scholars. I argued that recurrent instances and allegations of sexual misconduct and violation  in American Buddhist communities show that Buddhism has a sexual ethics problem. I also contended that a doubling down on well-known Buddhist ethical principles, like non-harm and compassion, was not an adequate solution. I called instead for a Buddhist- but also feminist-informed path towards ethical reform and healing, and suggested that deep in the early tradition were overlooked resources that support a more survivor-centered approach to the issue.

People were triggered.

Sexual violation in religious communities is about sex, but it is also about authority and power. Challenges to patterns of abuse in Buddhism, even scholarly ones such as my piece, push on the cleavages and stress points in structures of power and arrangements of authority. It is not surprising, then, that the pushback I received challenged, in return, my authority for writing on such subjects and demeaned my qualifications as a scholar.

Much worse, the negative responses I received also implied that the multiple survivors of sexual violation in American Buddhism were not really harmed, or alternatively, not really Buddhists. These comments were delivered publicly on social media, but also over private messaging, sometimes lighting up my phone at odd hours of the night. I found the affective labor involved in receiving and deciding how (or if) to respond to these types of communications significant. How much worse must it be for survivors such as Andrea Winn, Rebecca Jamieson, or Lama Willa Miller, who, having battled through the trauma of the original experiences, have then withstood hostility and erasure, often from other Buddhists.

My Tricycle piece argued that the Buddhist tradition is not by itself adequate for responding to abuse, but that sources within the vinaya (monastic disciplinary texts) — namely uniquely Buddhist understandings of consent and intention — could be helpful for survivors wishing to find resources within a tradition they still find meaningful or a source of healing. Still, the most affectively charged responses I received were from people who positioned themselves as consummate insiders.

One such response came from an American bhikṣuṇī (fully ordained monastic woman) in the Chinese tradition living in Iowa. Her lengthy comments, which were posted to a Buddhist Studies Facebook group, characterized my piece as a “nice hodgepodge” of references (thus seeming to imply that it had no central argument or point). She critiqued the fact that I didn’t include endnotes and scolded me for not providing quotes from the vinaya. Assuming incorrectly that I did not have access to them in their original languages, she pointed me to places I could find vinaya sources in English. In response, I thanked her for her comment and respectfully explained that public facing scholarship in a popular publication like Tricycle didn’t allow for extensive quotation and citation. I spared her a full accounting of my scholarly credentials, but suggested that, if she take a look at my page, she might find some of what she was missing in the Tricycle article.

I don’t think she did bother to look up my background or scholarship, nor did she seem to put a lot of time into understanding the point of my Tricycle piece. This was to open up the tradition by reading against the grain and asking different questions than it explicitly asks of itself, a reading strategy well represented and well theorized as a feminist hermeneutic and historiography. Instead, in her next post she launched into an off-the-top-of-her-head list of unsolicited suggestions for other, in her mind better, research methodologies I could take up and other disciplines I could explore in order to address the issue of abuse in Buddhism. She finished by stating that since the issues of consent and abuse were not of concern during the Buddha’s time (a position with which I heartily disagree), my constructive work in exploring notions of consent in the vinaya and other classical sources was doomed to be “conjecture and comparisons which make for poor scholarship.”

Another far more more aggressive response came from a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner who claimed to have close connections with multiple Tibetan lineage holders and tulkus, including Chogyam Trungpa and his family. She described her relationships with a host of famous Tibetan Buddhist figures, to whom she was apparently babysitter, student, lover, and friend. Who am I, she asked, to question or criticize her Tibetan teachers? On what authority? What lineage was I a part of? What do I know about abuse in Shambhala or elsewhere? In fact, I did not attempt a full or detailed accounting of allegations against Tibetan teachers in my piece, as this was not my focus, and they are, in any case, detailed elsewhere. I did, however, reference apologetic or what I consider to be simplistic responses from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and others as part of my argument that Buddhist solutions to abuse had not been adequate.

This reader further argued that my focus on survivor trauma and the vagaries of sexual consent infantilizes women and takes away their sexual choices. She accused me of telling her with whom she could have sex, and then documented her personal life, which apparently included a relationship with a prominent Tibetan Buddhist teacher (now deceased) as well as several well-known figures in the music industry. She argued that sexual abuse cases were only properly decided in a court of law where one is innocent until proven guilty and the burden of proof is high. Additionally, she questioned whether American Buddhism (the field of focus for my ongoing collaborative work on Buddhist sexual abuse with Ann Gleig) is real Buddhism as, in her estimation, real Buddhism is Asian.

In her gentler moments, this reader schooled me privately by direct message on the six perfections and the eight-fold path. At other times, she seemed to want to blackball me publicly by tagging multiple Buddhist teachers in a series of taunting tweets. In these public Twitter missives, she impugned me as arrogant and my scholarship as “shabby” and “bad academics” that mixed up things that shouldn’t be mixed up, such as psychology and different schools of Buddhism.

In total, this individual left only one initial comment on a private Facebook group page but private messaged me upwards of twenty-five times, many of which were substantial messages, with one reaching over 1500 words in length. She also included various and sundry attachments. In addition, as mentioned she sought me out on Twitter in order to disparage me publicly in a several-tweets-long thread. (My communications to her numbered three in total, the longest amounting to 33 words.) Overall, her tone ranged from pedagogical, to confessional, to loving, to taunting, to insulting. Twice, her private messages dropped very late at night, one after the other in a series. They lit up my phone and made me reach for it thinking they could be emergency texts from one of my children.

I learned from my Tricycle experience that our work on sexual abuse in American Buddhist communities is triggering. In different ways, both responses were inappropriate and intrusive given my qualifications as a scholar, what I had actually written in my Tricycle piece, and the courteous and professional manner in which I had engaged them online.

Ann and I know that we will likely field a number of similar reactions (or worse?) when we publish our book on sexual abuse in American Buddhism, as it will take an intersectional feminist approach and center survivors. Those I narrate here may be instructive of what we, or anyone producing public scholarship on sexual violation in religion, can expect. First, they are both from women, indicative of the fact that gender does not ensure a position supportive of survivors or survivor-centered work, and that it is not unusual for women to intervene to defend those in power. Second, both pushed against this work from insider positions that were marked. In one case, insider status was marked by monastic robes, from which an assumption of superior knowledge in all things seemed to flow naturally. In the other, it was marked by explicitly claiming lineage membership and closeness to religious authority (and challenging my assumed lack of lineage membership). Third, the responses attacked, erased, or sneered at my academic qualifications and scholarly chops, apparently without doing the necessary work that would allow for an accurate assessment.

What I found most demoralizing about these online interactions is the fact that both critics erased survivors and their experiences in their desire to protect the structures of power and authority in which they had invested. Neither expressed much concern for what Buddhist survivors of abuse have experienced. My monastic critic defended the tradition by arguing that sexual abuse was not relevant in the Buddha’s time. This amounts to an anti-feminist reading of the tradition, one that ignores the multiple accounts of rape and sexual assault in early Buddhist sources. If we read the sources in this way, we are, in effect, modeling the erasure of sexual trauma as Buddhist. My Tibetan Buddhist critic implied that no violation rises to something actionable unless it can be adjudicated in court. She also effectively denied that power inequities affect a person’s ability to consent. While she claimed to speak for the Tibetan tradition as in insider, in fact her position is quite different from that of the several Tibetan teachers that have spoken out against abuse. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition is not univocal on the subject of sexual abuse.

It was not pleasant to field these unfair, disrespectful, and sometimes insulting responses to my work. It was heavy emotional labor to receive the aggression of strangers in the disembodied realms of social media, especially when it arrived in the form of multiple ranting private messages at 2 AM. The affective experience of these exchanges was made stranger by the fact that they were often laced with Buddhist wishes that I “awaken my mindstream” and that “all sentient beings be happy.”

Receiving strangers’ aggression online felt confusing and toxic to me, but what I experienced was mostly a deflection of the hostility and obfuscation that is more often directed at the survivors themselves. It is common for survivors of abuse to have their legitimacy, commitment, honesty, and experience-based knowledge challenged and erased, up close and in person, within their own communities. . . often by people that are insisting on the good intentions and wise minds of their abusers.

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Why Are White Buddhists So Angry? White Rage and Buddhist Studies Scholarship

Today’s post comes from Ann Gleig. Ann is a scholar of religion at the University of Central Florida, and the author of American Dharma: Buddhism Beyond Modernity (Yale University Press, 2019). You can read an earlier post by Ann, together with Amy Langenberg, here.) This time Ann reflects on her experiences as a Buddhist scholar on the receiving end of white rage.

Steve: “Scary, postmodern virus infects North American Buddhism.”

Me: “Thanks for showing us what PoC Buddhists have to deal with every day in their sanghas, Steve.”

Steve: “Keep playing the victim.”

Me: “I notice your Twitter profile says “Zen Beginner,” maybe you could learn something from the Zen teachers in this book, who have been practicing for decades. Stretch that Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Steve!”

Steve: deletes thread and blocks me.[1]

The preceding was a short exchange I had with Steve, a stranger, on Twitter, after I tweeted about the publication of George Yancy and Emily McRae’s 2019 edited collection Buddhism and Whiteness. The book contained essays by Buddhist scholars and scholar-practitioners examining both how whiteness operates in Buddhist practice and academic communities, and what resources Buddhist thought and practice offer for challenging whiteness. While this was the first academic collection to attend to whiteness in Buddhism, Buddhists of Color have been confronting whiteness in American Buddhism for over two and a half decades. The landmark 2000 compilation Making the Invisible Visible: Healing Racism in our Buddhist Communities, for instance, shared that for many years the white Euro-American sangha has been resistant to efforts by People of Color to raise awareness of racism in Buddhist communities.

Twenty years later, the same white resistance is all too visible in Steve’s Twitter tantrum about Buddhism and Whiteness, a response which, ironically, performs the very thing he was denying existed. Drawing on similar responses, I want to make visible a specific expression of whiteness—what African American historian Carol Anderson has identified as “white rage”—directed at scholars of and scholarship on religion and racial justice.  

The Many Faces of White Buddhist Rage  

In 2016, Carol Anderson published White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, a searing history of white anger, resentment, and backlash against Black political and social progress. In his review of White Rage, Jesse McCarthy explains the book’s origins and intention:

In August 2014, as the headlines from Ferguson focused on the eruption of black rage, Anderson, a professor of African-­American studies at Emory University, wrote a dissenting op-ed in The Washington Post arguing that the events were better understood as white backlash at a moment of black progress, a social and political pattern that she reminded readers was as old as the nation itself. Her essay became the kernel for this book, which expands and illustrates her thesis. “I set out to make white rage visible,” Anderson writes in her introduction, “to blow graphite onto that hidden fingerprint and trace its historic movements over the past 150 years.[2]

In their recent book, The Religion of White Rage: Religious Fervor, White Workers, and the Myth of Black Racial Progress, scholars Stephen C. Finley, Biko Mandela Gray and Lori Latrice Martin extend Anderson’s work on white rage to religion. Anderson’s reframing of the narrative from Black anger to white rage also resonates with what I was finding in my research on racial justice in American Buddhism. Many Buddhists of Color have reported that white Buddhists often oppose racial justice efforts on the charges that they are motivated by anger and therefore not legitimately Buddhist. I had encountered the same objection directly tracking white Buddhist backlash to racial justice.

What has been left out of this conversation, however, is a reflection on white Buddhist rage—the white Buddhist backlash against racial justice gains in their communities. White Buddhist rage has many faces: innocence, denial, condescension, ridicule, resentment, and hatred. A glance at any comment thread under articles on Buddhism, racial justice and whiteness will show one or more of these different expressions. American Studies professor and Buddhist practitioner Funie Hsu received so much white Buddhist rage because of her article on the exclusion of Asian American Buddhists that Lion’s Roar magazine subsequently commissioned Ajahn Amaro, a white Theravadin monastic, to write in support of her work.

My own research has also been on the receiving end of white rage. One commentator under “Buddhists and Racial Justice: A History,” claimed “White privilege is racial profiling…Buddhists should know better than to pick sides and use racist terminology,” before presenting statistics on “black on black crime. Another declared “You cannot be ‘white’ and ‘Buddhist’ and ‘privileged’…and if you are it will not last it will be taken off of you and given to a more ‘deserving’ black or poc ‘Buddhist’ person…or ‘teacher’ as they call them.” After Hebah Farrag and I published an article on the spirituality of Black Lives Matter.—which included the influence of BLM on racial justice work in Buddhism—we both received several hate email. One of these called Black Lives Matter “a cult, evil and out to destroy Western Civilization,” and advised us to “Open your eyes and get real jobs.”

Similar, after publishing a more general piece on white privilege and redlining I received several emails, through both my work and social media accounts, ranging from condescending to aggressive. One white male shared that he has searched my “Rate Your Professor” evaluations and could see I was an excellent professor but obviously needed to read more conservative explanations of wealth and health racial disparities. Another reported that he had discovered I was British and come to the (erroneous) conclusion that I must have grown up very privileged and was now trying to divide Americans. A third was more direct, declaring: “You should be fired for your recent article. You are a disgrace to UCF.”  

White Buddhas

Responding to White Rage

My encounters with white [Buddhist] rage have significantly shaped my scholarly trajectory, pushing me from documenting and contextualizing racial justice work in American Buddhism to explicitly advocating for it. In a recent publication charting the reactionary right-wing Buddhist backlash to racial justice, co-written with Brenna Artinger, for instance, we make transparent our anti-racist research commitment and align ourselves with what Nancy Scheper-Hughes (2006) calls “the ethics of witnessing” in which ethnography is undertaken with an intentional commitment to vulnerable populations. In addition to cataloguing the right-wing backlash to racial justice, I have also directly confronted it. On social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, I have used a variety of strategies to challenge whiteness in Buddhism: educated dialogue, confrontation, humor, or simply ignoring and blocking.   

One example came after I published a short personal reflection on thinking about Covid from an engaged Buddhist perspective for Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar. Here I emphasize how Covid death rates and treatment have highlighted racial disparities in health care between white and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Americans. One online response to the piece on Lion’s Roar Facebook page was particularly hostile. Susan began sharply with a complete dismissal of the piece as “sheer nonsense” and a personal attack dubbing me a “left leaning would be academic,” and questioning whether I was a real Buddhist. I started an educated dialogue with Susan, offering some canonical resources, as well as historical context on engaged Buddhism to contextualize racial justice work. Each response, however, merely elicited a new line of attack, suggesting that her aversion was rooted more in resentment than reason.   

Another strategy I have employed is to ignore but make visible and to creatively subvert some of the hostility directed towards me. When Ade, an administrator of the Facebook group Contemporary Buddhism posted a diatribe against me and my piece, claiming that I was attempting “to  “pervert the dharma by means of identity politics,” I decided not to directly engage. Quite frankly supporting comments such as, “I’m so speeciaaal that I have to have my own river of suffering,” “People bleating utter nonsense about things they obviously know fuck all about,” and “you can’t polish a turd,” left me with little confidence that education was possible. Instead, I screenshot his post and re-tweeted under the title of ANN GLEIG, DHARMA PERVERT. After Ade continued to write sneering posts of other female engaged Buddhists who were advocating against white supremacy, I simply blocked him.

The Threat of White Rage

Confronting white rage has a cost. I myself know two female scholars who are weary of engaging with public scholarship on Buddhism and racial justice, because of either actual or anticipated aggressive responses. One of these received hate mail threatening a “cyber-attack” after she had given a talk on whiteness and Buddhism. Scholars working on whiteness and racial justice are often forced to make difficult decisions between their personal/professional safety and well-being and having their work be available in the public sphere. After disturbing tweets from self-identified alt-right Buddhists, Brenna Grace Artinger and I had to request the registration list be carefully monitored and no recording be made of recent lectures we have given on our research on reactionary right-wing backlashes to racial justice. Reflecting on the misogynist attacks she received, Audrey Truschke powerfully reminds us that minority scholars –female, non-binary, scholars of color, junior, and contingent—are particularly vulnerable.

In addition to the interpersonal threat, scholars working with critical race theory in the United States are increasingly facing institutional and legal vulnerabilities. Following the gains of the Black Lives Matter Movement, after the murder of George Floyd in summer 2020, classical liberals, Christian evangelicals and Republicans caricatured and launched a full-on attack on critical race theory. This culminated in Trump passing an Executive Order banning diversity training, which had immediate impacts in higher education. Despite Biden reversing the order, many Republicans continue to push related legislation. In response to a university book panel on Finley, Gray and Martin’s The Religion of White Rage, a legislator from Louisiana raised public concerns and has proposed a bill that could make it illegal for schools to teach about structural racism.

In my own state of Florida, Republicans are pushing a bill that threatens academics under weaponized concerns for “free speech” and to supposedly guarantee intellectual diversity.

Naming White Rage in Religious Studies Scholarship

Despite the threat of confronting white rage, I remain committed to do so for three main reasons:

First, scholars of color, particularly Black scholars, routinely face intense vitriolic hatred and threats of violence for their work on religion and racial justice. George Yancy, the co-editor of Buddhism and Whiteness, analyzed the white racist vitriol including death threats he received after his stunning editorial Dear White America. African American scholar Anthea Butler catalogued some of the hate mail she received after writing her powerful essay “The Zimmerman Acquittal: America’s Racist God.” White scholars simply must step up and carry some of the affective burden of naming the operations of whiteness in religion and philosophy.  

Second, a growing number of Buddhist Studies scholars are recognizing and seeking to confront Buddhist Studies’ ongoing legacy of colonialism and Orientalism. As Tibetan Buddhist scholar Constance Kassor concisely puts it: Buddhist Studies Has A Whiteness Problem. I consider work on racial justice in contemporary Buddhism as one way to confront and correct this legacy. 

Third, my ethnographic scholarship—and the academic recognition it has brought me—has been largely dependent on the generosity of Buddhists of Color who have given me their time and trust. Confronting and contextualizing white Buddhist rage through anti-racist scholarship is one way I have been able to reciprocate. Academic work can have a real impact for practitioners undertaking anti-racist work in Buddhist communities. 

While confronting white rage in religious scholarship is crucial, placing the burden on individual scholars, particularly scholars of color, is insufficient. Confronting whiteness in religious studies must be done collectively with not just symbolic but also material means of support from academic bodies and institutions.

[1]  May 29, 2019.

[2] Jesse McCarthy, “Why Are Whites So Angry?” New York Times, June 24, 2016.

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Introducing The Shiloh Pushback Series: “Abuse in the Academy…”

Over the coming weeks, we are hosting a series of blog posts relating to abuse experienced by academics as the result of their research.

Within the academy, there is a toxic culture of competitiveness, including battles for grant funding, struggles with the recruitment of students, and an anxiety-infused pressure to be productive in terms of research outputs and knowledge exchange. Precarious employment is too common, and the looming threat of cuts and redundancies are acutely felt across many disciplines, not least of all of theology, religion and biblical studies. All of this is fuelled by a capitalist system of higher education. The ivory towers not only have a cloud hanging over them, but they are stained with the blood, sweat and tears of burnt-out academics.

Academics attack one another in myriad ways. #Reviewer2 has gained notoriety to reflect the harsh and tactless derision of a scholar’s work through the peer review process. Tweets and hashtags on social media pay testament to many academics’ experiences when a reviewer’s critique lacks humanity and is enabled by the blind peer review process. Or, the “more of a comment than a question” scenario, where attention is stolen from a researcher’s work through the performative confidence of another academic; the latter completely lacking in any ability to engage constructively with the speaker. Other, more overt attacks exist.

The abuse we are discussing in this series of blog posts is in no way related to the critique of thoughts, theories and methods that are expected in the academy to ensure constructive and generative dialogue in our respected disciplines. Rather, it takes the form of micro-aggressions, verbal attacks, public attempts at shaming (including and especially using social media platforms), gatekeeping, excluding and shunning an academic and their work, or putting further barriers into the promotion of their research in the wider community. Sadly, these are far too common in academia to ignore.

These attacks bear little significance to the academic work being attacked, but instead are the result of conscious prejudices. They are often projected against women, Black, Asian, African, Hispanic scholars, LGBTQ+ people, disabled people, and working-class academics. They are, simply put, the manifestations of misogyny, racism, homo-bi-trans-phobia, ableism, and classism.

In Other, Please Specify (2018, University of California Press), Jane Ward writes about her own experiences in a toxic work environment in the discipline of sociology. She comments,

“The fervor and sanctimony with which many […] have guarded the gates of the discipline and asserted the privileged position of their own epistemological and methodological preferences raises some basic questions about the politic stakes at hand. What, precisely, are they guarding? Why is there so much resistance in a discipline built upon the study of social change? How can these scholars, who are seemingly so troubled by new theories and research methods, not see the low stakes of methodological squabbles in the grand scheme of the world’s social problems?” (p.56)

Kristen Schilt also notes that, by erecting and maintaining rigid and “traditional” disciplinary boundaries, ideological critiques are masked as objective criticism. Schilt describes the intersectional and institutional strategies that push academics to the margins or into exile. She describes the “three Rs” as resistance, reduction and ridicule:

  • Resistance: “the attempt to erect boundaries against an emerging area of inquiry”
  • Reduction: “the attempt to dismiss scholarship … as too ‘fringe’”
  • Ridicule: “an attempt to devalue scholarship…by positioning it as absurd” (p.39).

Academic-on-academic abuse is rife, but it is not the only sort of abuse our bloggers experience. In engaging with the study of religion from critical and non-orthodox perspectives, an academic’s work is often on the receiving end of uninvited feedback from members of the public and religious groups – we will hear more about this in upcoming posts. Yet, it isn’t only an individual’s work that is derided, but aspects of who they are. In one example, former co-director of the Shiloh Project, Dr Katie Edwards, writes on her experiences of classism, and accentism, within the academy:

“I regularly receive horrified emails from those who’ve heard me speak wondering why on earth I was given a job in a university when I sound, and I quote, ‘like you’ve never even attended school’. These attitudes used to upset me, but nowadays I couldn’t give a toss; my accent and use of dialect words gives me a strong sense of connection to the people and places I love.”

Despite these experiences, Katie now uses her enchanting accent in a fruitful career as a broadcaster and writer.

There are damaging consequences of this abuse, though, and the Shiloh Project is committed to calling out abuse in all forms. For many academics, abuse that is obfuscated as constructive objectivity can lead to a real paralysis in their academic work. Feelings of loneliness, isolation and not being good enough manifest, and compound an often already well-established embodied experience of imposter syndrome.

The bloggers in this series are sharing some of their professional and personal experiences, and, in some ways, remove the professional mask that usually obfuscates any vulnerability. Yet, it is precisely this vulnerability that can be a catalyst for change. Brené Brown speaks more forcefully about the rich potential of the power of vulnerability. Emotive stories about pushback our academics have received has been a fuel for productivity and action. More importantly, it is a call to the need to create change – in our responses to others, in reviews of others’ work. In sharing vulnerable episodes of our academic lives, the bloggers in this series demonstrate the urgent need for intellectual relationships built on empathy, kindness, support and a space to belong within the academy.

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