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Toxic Theologies

Spotlight! Miryam Clough

Routledge Focus Series: Rape Culture, Religion and the Bible

Miryam’s Clough’s courageous book has the title Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo. It was first published in 2022 and includes, alongside accounts of Miryam’s own experiences, data from interviews with both survivors and church leaders. The book explores the impact of clergy sexual misconduct on women’s careers and vocational aspirations in the church.

What follows are Miryam’s reflections on writing and publishing her book.

The focus of my book was a surprise to me. I was doing some quite broad research on women in the Anglican Church in New Zealand when someone referred me to Rev’d Louise Deans’ book Whistleblower, about a serial abuser and the struggle a group of women had to call him, and the church, to account. This story had come to light when a group of women met to discuss sexual harassment in the church at a conference of ordained Anglican women in 1989, the year after I left New Zealand having had a similar experience as a young ordinand. As I researched, the theme of clergy abuse kept coming up, and my book evolved from there. Revisiting that time in my life in the context of what the church was like for other women was actually a very positive experience for me, and it was helpful to assess my own experiences from a more structural perspective. It was fun delving into the archives of the John Kinder Theological Library in Auckland and especially revisiting Vashti’s Voice, a home-grown Christian feminist journal from the 1980s. The copy, produced on typewriters or by hand, hand illustrated, and duplicated on a Gestetner, brought the experiences of those women to life. It was also really useful to immerse myself in the literature on clergy abuse, which I’d not read before then. Some really seminal work in this area was done decades ago by women like Marie Fortune. The church is still catching up.

Vocation and Violence was very much a collaborative project and I’m grateful to all those who contributed to it. It is important to recognise that much of the work towards addressing sexual violence in the church is driven by survivors and takes a particular kind of courage. Bringing stories of abuse into the public arena is both potentially freeing and increases vulnerability. The stories have a way of becoming public property. They may be examined in intrusively forensic detail by church lawyers seeking to evade culpability for their client, or graphically reported by a media intent on selling their product to a prurient and scandal-hungry public. In the frenzy, the wellbeing of those involved and the structural mechanisms that facilitate abuse are often overlooked. 

Misogyny and toxic masculinity persistently exploit biblical violence to justify purity culture, complementarianism, and clericalism, promoting entitlement in some and cultivating the conditions for abuse to flourish. The fundamental problem of a male God – man made God in his own image – remains one of the central delusions of the church’s history, and the language of the church continues to support this. Here in New Zealand currently, I’ve noticed that the phrase “Father God” is repeated in some extempore prayer so often that it becomes almost the sole content of the prayer, interspersed with the odd petition. Meanwhile in wider society women are once more being subtly written out of the language and I think this will prove to be really damaging if it persists. 

I’m using a similar methodology in my third Routledge monograph on the way churches in New Zealand responded to the Ardern government’s Covid-19 Protection Framework in 2021–2022, which saw many unvaccinated Christians excluded from their church congregations and mandated out of their jobs. I’m interviewing clergy and lay people about their experiences – whether those were of working within the Framework to implement its guidelines or of being excluded by it – and aiming to give voice to a range of perspectives in the hope that, should a similar situation arise, the churches are better equipped to respond. 

The interviews worked well in Vocation and Violence. Some contributors have said they found it helpful to tell their stories and feel heard and several readers have contacted me to say they found it helpful to read stories that echoed their own experiences, and that they appreciated both the authenticity of accounts and the assessment of the theological and structural dynamics that enable and allow abuse – including theirs – to occur. Another aspect that was appreciated was that I didn’t focus on the details of abuse, which, as I’ve noted, so many public accounts do. So often, reporting of sexual violence is gratuitous and amounts to secondary abuse. One reviewer commented that the book “should be required  reading for  bishops and others in church leadership and positions of decision-making as well as for both teachers and learners in theological education and ministry training.”[1]

One area where I think a lot more work is needed is on the way the churches prevent and respond to misconduct and abuse by clergy and others in positions of power. I think we, in the church, struggle to deal with the complexities involved, and with how to disentangle subjective judgements about morality from coercive or abusive behaviour. Far too much energy goes into judging and controlling people’s intimate lives rather than into preventing abuse and discerning and dealing with it well when it does occur. I’m not sure that our Ministry Standards processes are yet really fit for purpose. 

The Routledge Focus Series on “Rape Culture, Religion, and the Bible” was a great series to write for. The editors are really hands-on, interested, encouraging, and prompt to respond to queries. If you are thinking of submitting a proposal for a volume in this series – do it! Even if you’re just at the ideas stage, you’ll get some great feedback and support. There is some fantastic work being done now on religion and rape culture, Bible and violence and I cannot recommend this series too highly!


[1] Janet Crawford, “Book Review: Vocation and Violence: The Church and #MeToo,” Anglican Journal of Theology in Aotearoa and Oceania, Vol. 1, issue 1, Spring 2022, https://www.stjohnscollege.ac.nz/journal.

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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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Trauma and Theology Conference

Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand

Earlier this year, St John’s Theological College (Anglican), Trinity Theological College (Methodist), and the Centre for Theology and Public Issues (University of Otago), jointly hosted a two-day Trauma and Theology Conference. This conference was led by Dr Karen O’Donnell, a specialist in theology and trauma, and the Director of Studies at Wescott House, Cambridge, UK.

During the conference, participants were invited to share some of their reflections. These reflections were filmed (with participants’ permission) and have been developed into a short film by two St John’s students, Scott Parekowhai and Grace Cox. This video highlights some of the participants’ impressions of the significant work that was covered in this conference. 

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Update on the Bible & Violence Project

The Bible and Violence Project is up and running!

We now have over 120 contributors signed up. Many of them are busy forming and working together in writing groups; others are receiving or providing mentoring. If you are a contributor and find yourself in need of support or motivation, please be in touch if we can help.

The publication emerging from this project aims to be the most comprehensive and inclusive on the topic of the Bible and violence to date. Alongside chapters on every text of the Hebrew Bible and Christian Greek Bible, there will also be chapters on the Bible and…:

Its role and impact in diverse geographical settings

Incel cultures and the manosphere

The ethics of citing violent scholars

HIV/AIDS

Liberative readings in violent settings

Environmental violence

Colonialism

Trafficking

Intimate partner violence

Genocide

Gender-based violence

Rape and rape culture

Violence aimed at children, at animals, and at the deceased

Violence in the family

Divine violence

Supersessionism

Antisemitism, as well as Islamophobia

Martyrdom

War

Crime fiction

Abortion activism

Transphobia

Zionism

Fat shaming…

… and that is not all. Alongside yet more exciting topics, there will also be some chapters on select rabbinical texts and Dead Sea Scrolls, gnostic and deuterocanonical texts.

We have already received contributions ahead of the first deadline of 2 October 2023 by Katherine SouthwoodSébastien DoaneAlison JackBarbara Thiede and Alexiana Fry, with more in the pipeline.

Two of the editors – Chris and Johanna – recently visited Manchester to present at the United Reformed Church research conference on both The Shiloh Project and Bible and Violence Project. While there, we enjoyed hearing Megan Warner’s paper on her topic for the project. 

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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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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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Introducing the Contributors to “The Bible and Violence” – Barbara Thiede, Holly Morse and Adriaan van Klinken

Bible picture with a 'warning' sign.

Happy New Year! Year 2023 will be a busy year for The Bible & Violence Project. Today we introduce three more contributors. Each of them demonstrates why this project is relevant and important, and why research-based activism matters. We are happy to introduce Barbara ThiedeHolly Morse, and Adriaan van Klinken. (Reading about these three contributors in turn, we think they should meet!).

Barbara Thiede is an ordained Rabbi and Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at the UNCC (University of North Carolina Charlotte) Department of Religious Studies in the USA. Her work focuses primarily on the structures of hegemonic masculinity and the performance of masculinities in biblical texts. She is the author of Male Friendship, Homosociality, and Women in the Hebrew Bible: Malignant Fraternities (Routledge, 2022) and Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men (Routledge Focus, 2022). She is currently working on her third book (under contract with Bloomsbury T&T Clark), which focuses on the biblical deity’s performance of masculinity in the Books of Samuel. She will be writing the chapter on Violence in the David Story and co-authoring, together with Johanna Stiebert, a chapter on the Ethics of Citing Violent Scholars.

I argue in my second monograph, Rape Culture in the House of David: A Company of Men, that David’s capacity for sexualized violence is not only tremendous but very much valorized in and by the text; and it is exactly this capacity, which (in terms of the ideological orientation of the text) makes him an ideal king. But David does not act alone (rapists don’t). Hegemonic masculinity and the structures that support and promote it make rape culture possible and make it thrive. Male-male relationships of all kinds in the David story undergird and support sexual violence. Servants, messengers, courtiers, soldiers, generals, advisors – these men collude and participate in, condone, and witness sexual violence throughout the narrative. Rape is not so much a topic as a tool – and it is used against men as well as women. If we cannot call out the violence the Hebrew Bible authorizes, we give our tacit consent to the rape culture it presents and by extension, to the rape cultures it legitimates and which we ourselves inhabit.

For the same reason, I cannot ignore an ugly reality in academia: that there are scholars who commit violence through sexual harassment, bullying, and rape; scholars who have participated in technology-based gendered violence, and who have preyed on children. These are scholars whose presence in our midst confronts us with fundamental questions about the nature of our guild. Hegemonic masculine systems have protected such scholars from censure and criminal conviction for decades. Together with Johanna Stiebert, we want to ask: do our ethics permit us to cite the work of violent predators?

We cannot afford apathy, indifference, or denial; we cannot afford to collude or condone. It is our task to resist violent texts and violent authors – especially when these are given authority and power to harm and abuse. Doing so might provide some healing and hope. And: it is an ethical imperative.

_______________________________________________________________________________

Holly Morse is Senior Lecturer in Bible, Gender and Culture at the University of Manchester in the UK and specialises in the Hebrew Bible and gender-based violence, as well as in biblical reception – especially visual and popular cultures. She also has broader interdisciplinary research interests in knowledge, magical and spiritual activism, heresy, and gender. Holly is author of Encountering Eve’s Afterlives: A New Reception Critical Approach to Genesis 2-4 (Oxford University Press, 2020). In this book, she seeks to destabilise the persistently pessimistic framing of Eve by engaging with marginal, and even heretical, interpretations which focus on more positive aspects of the first woman’s character. Holly has also written on biblical literature, gender, feminist activism, trauma, abuse, and the visual arts and popular culture. Holly is co-founder of the Bible, Gender and Church Research Centre, with Dr Kirsi Cobb (Cliff College). Together they are now working on an AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) funded research network around the topic Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo Age.To date they have hosted one colloquium focused on coercive control, with another on hypermasculinity due to take place in April 2023. Holly is writing on Gender-Based Violence in Visual Art on the Bible.  

Survivors and victims of gender-based violence frequently attest to feeling that they have been left voiceless and silenced, as a consequence of the actions of their attackers, but also of the social systems which fail to provide them with support and with justice (see Jan Jordan Silencing Rape, Silencing Women, 2012). This theme of voicelessness is present, too, in the troubling texts of terror in the Hebrew Bible – the narratives of Dinah and the Levite’s pilegesh, or the law of the nameless, captive, non-Israelite “brides” of Deuteronomy 21; these texts and many more feature characters who are denied a voice in the wake of brutal attacks on their bodies and on their personhood. A growing field of powerful scholarship within biblical studies acknowledges and explores the significance of witnessing the silent trauma of these accounts across the centuries. It is into this conversation that I hope my paper for the Bible and Violence project will speak, but this time focusing on a different aspect of witness and gender-based violence – visibility. 

Despite the fact that 1 in 3 women globally are subject to physical and/or sexual violence, the harrowing frequency of these offences is met with a woeful rate of conviction rendering the majority of gender-based violence against women and girls invisible, hidden crimes. This lack of visibility of the abuse of women is further compounded by the fact that around 90% of rapes are committed by acquaintances of the victims, and often within the broader context of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence. In many ways, the Hebrew Bible too elides violence against women. With no specific language for rape, with laws that seem to accommodate abuse of female persons, and with accounts of what likely describe violent, sexual attacks on women mired in euphemism and narratorial disinterest, trying to render biblical survivors and victims of gender-based violence visible to the reader is often a challenge. In my paper for this project, I want to think about how visual art can help or hinder us in acts of witness to the experiences of biblical women at the hands of their abusers, and in turn offer opportunity to think further about tools for moral and ethical readings of ancient authoritative texts in our contemporary world.


Adriaan van Klinken is Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds, where he also serves as Director of the Leeds University Centre for African Studies and the Centre for Religion and Public Life. He also is Extraordinary Professor in the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice, University of the Western Cape, South Africa. Adriaan’s research focuses on religion, gender, and sexuality in contemporary Africa. His books include Kenyan, Christian, Queer: Religion, LGBT Activism and Arts of Resistance in Africa (2019); with Ezra Chitando, Reimagining Christianity and Sexual Diversity in Africa (2021); and with Johanna Stiebert, Sebyala Brian and Fredrick Hudson, Sacred Queer Stories: Ugandan LGBTQ+ Refugee Lives and the Bible (2021). 

Sebyala Brian (left), Adriaan van Klinken (centre) and Fredrick Hudson

In recent years, I’ve had the privilege to work, together with my colleague Johanna Stiebert, with a community of LGBTQ+ refugees based in Kenya. Most of the refugees originate from Uganda and left that country in the aftermath of its infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which created a strong social, political and religious culture of queer-phobia. They sought safety in Kenya, only to discover that this country, too, is largely hostile towards sexual and gender minorities. 

From my first encounter with this community, back in 2015, what struck me was their faith, and the strength and comfort this gave them in the struggle of their everyday lives. As I was invited to prayer and worship meetings at the shelter run by a community-based organisation, called The Nature Network, I observed first-hand how these LGBTQ+ refugees created a space where they affirmed each other, shared their faith, read and talked about the Bible, and joyfully expressed their belief in God. 

Together with two of the leaders of the Nature Network, Sebyala Brian and Fredrick Hudson, Johanna and I developed the Sacred Queer Stories project. Here, we aimed to explore the intersections of bible stories and the life stories of Ugandan LGBTQ+ refugees. More specifically, we examined the potential of reclaiming the Bible and using it to signify the queer lives of LGBTQ+ refugees in East Africa. This is important because, in the words of one of our participants, “The Bible is often used against us, but in this project we reclaim it as a book that affirms and empowers us.” The results of the project were published in our jointly authored book, Sacred Queer Stories: Ugandan LGBTQ+ Refugee Lives and the Bible.

In our contribution to the Bible and Violence project, we will build on our collaborative work with the community of LGBTQ+ refugees, to explore the strategies of creative and contextual bible reading that we developed in order to read the Bible against queer-phobic violence. We will show how the Bible, on the one hand serves to reinforce existing power structures and social inequalities, but on the other hand can also be used for purposes of community empowerment and social transformation. Indeed, we put our Sacred Queer Stories project in the well-established queer tradition of ‘taking back the Word’, not allowing the Bible to be owned by homophobic preachers and politicians, but to reclaim it in a quest for liberation and freedom. As a case in point, we will discuss the work we did around the story of Daniel in the lions’ den, which in our project was re-narrated and dramatized in the contemporary context under the title “Daniel in the Homophobic Lions’ Den”. 

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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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Announcing the first colloquium of two: Coercive Control

Broken Glass

Kirsi Cobb and Holly Morse recently posted about their important project, “Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo Age” (see here).

The first colloquium will take place both in person and online and is hosted by the University of Manchester on 10 September 2022 (10am to 4pm). It features a line-up of terrific speakers, presenting and co-producing in pairs. The event is designed to foster collaboration, co-learning, and research-based positive action.

Registration is now open! Registration is free. Please find the Eventbrite link here.

(There will be a second colloquium in due course. The focus of the second colloquium will be hypermasculinity.)

For more information, please email: [email protected]

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Announcing… an event for postgraduates, postdocs and other ECRs (early career researchers) working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts

Save the Date… register expressions of interest… spread the word…

An event for postgraduates, postdocs and other ECRs (early career researchers) working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts.

When? 14 – 15 November 2022 (times to be confirmed)

Where? At the University of Leeds (venue to be confirmed). This will be an in-person event only and all participants are encouraged to take part actively in all events.

What? Short presentations by participants, guest presentations by invited speakers, networking, focused discussion groups, informal conversations. 

Why? Research on abuse and trauma in religious contexts comes with profound and distinctive sensitivities and difficulties. While categories such as ‘spiritual abuse’ are becoming more well understood and widely used, and with research on abuse in religious contexts growing, support networks are still sparse.

The aims of this event are:

To bring together postgraduates, postdocs and other ECRs working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts.

To create networks of collaboration and support.

To share information about existing resources and services that participants have found meaningful and helpful.

To identify what is still needed in terms of information and support and to discuss ways to meet these needs.

On November 14–15, activities will be led by Chrissie Thwaites and Laura Wallace. Both are postgraduates in the subject unit of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. Because both are busy with internships at present, please direct initial enquires and expressions of interest to Johanna Stiebert, co-director of the Shiloh Project: [email protected]

If you are a postgraduate, postdoc, or ECR working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts and you’d like to take part in the events of 14-15 November 2022 at the University of Leeds, please get in touch, with a short description (one paragraph) of your research. We will endeavour to fund or subsidise participants’ travel (within the UK) and accommodation costs, as well as refreshments during the event. Numbers will be limited. All participants will make a short presentation to the group (10-15 minutes) about their research. 

If you would like to nominate yourself, or someone else (a researcher, activist, practitioner) to make a short presentation at the event (e.g. about strategies and/or resources for working on topics of abuse and trauma in religious contexts), please be in touch, describing the proposed speaker and providing their contact details. We will cover participants’ travel (within the UK) and accommodation costs, as well as refreshments and a modest honorarium. 

To find out a bit more about the project…

This event is part of a large grant called ‘Abuse in Religious Settings’ (AIRS) funded by the AHRC. It is supplemented by another AHRC grant, with the title ‘The Shiloh Project’, on sacred texts and rape cultures. The AIRS grant is led by Professor Gordon Lynch (University of Kent) and the Shiloh Project grant is led by Johanna Stiebert (University of Leeds). 

This event is aimed at researchers at relatively early stages of their career working on topics of abuse and trauma in religious contexts. It aims to create networks of support and collaboration and to identify existing resources and sources of support, as well as needs for researchers of abuse and trauma in religious contexts that are not met, or not met adequately. Together we will discuss how best to meet these needs.

We acknowledge that researchers working on abuse and trauma in religious contexts encounter sensitivities and difficulties of particular kinds. We acknowledge that researchers working in such areas may themselves be victims or survivors of trauma and abuse, or encounter stress and trauma in working with victims and survivors. Additionally, there may be secondary and intersectional contributing factors and it would be good to discuss and address these, too. Hence, other factors may exacerbate difficulties particular to the research: financial strain, anxiety about employability, minoritized status on account of mental wellbeing, disability, gender, gender identity, sexuality, racism, ethnic marginalisation, classicism, to name a few.

Sad Angel (CC.BY-NC-SA 2.0, cropped)

We hope to create a safe and constructive space to take such conversations forward.

Please help us spread the word and please contact us if you would like to participate. 

Please direct all initial enquiries to Johanna Stiebert: [email protected]

For more information on the project ‘Abuse in Religious Settings’, please contact: [email protected]

[The feature image (of the STOP sign) is by allaboutgeorge, CC-BY-ND 2.0, cropped]

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