Gender-based violence (GBV) is a crime as old, if not older, than the Bible. Yet, it is also a crime that remains endemic today, with almost one in three women globally having ‘been subjected to physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence, or both at least once in their life’, according to data produced by the World Health Organisation on behalf of the United Nations.
In recent years, the #MeToo movement has born witness to these horrifying figures in a visceral and moving way, inspiring a wave of activism and education about GBV. #MeToo rose to global attention in 2017, when in the wake of an all too familiar news story breaking about the sexual abuse of women by a more powerful man, Alyssa Milano tweeted “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Within 24 hours, Milano’s tweet had gone viral on social media, receiving thousands of replies from women speaking out about the violence they had experienced. Milano’s tweet helped to bring international attention to the important work of the MeToo organisation that had been set up just over a decade earlier by Tarana Burke, which focused on supporting survivors of sexual violence, especially women of colour from low-income households. Burke used the phrase ‘Me Too’ within her work to demonstrate how common GBV is, and as part of a form of activism that sought to help survivors of sexual violence to feel less alone in their pain.
Yet, despite the powerful light the #MeToo movement has helped to shine on the disturbing levels of GBV experienced by women and girls globally, such violence continues to be perpetrated with deeply worrying frequency, while prosecutions against crimes of GBV remain problematically low (End Violence Against Women reports; Rape Crisis statistics). In the UK, in the wake of multiples lockdowns and resultant cuts to key support services during the Covid-19 pandemic, GBV has surged (Refuge.org.uk, 27.5.2020), while tragic stories like those of Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman, Sabina Nessa, Zarah Aleena and many others have highlighted the institutionalised sexism and abuse that is rife in across Great Britain.
This worrying picture of the effect GBV has on the lives of women and girls, and the urgent need to continue to contribute to important conversations about essential support for survivors in different social, economic, cultural and religious contexts of GBV, has generated a number of reports and research projects focused specifically on Christianity, sexism and GBV. For example, the Sophia Network’s ‘Minding the Gap’ report, which in 2017 demonstrated that although women make up 65% of church communities in the UK, 62% of these women have experienced some form of sexism in church. More than half of the respondents also indicated that this was a problem that existed on an institutional rather than on an individual level. Looking more specifically at GBV, and in particular Domestic Abuse, the 2018 report by Kristen Aune and Rebecca Barnes, ‘Church Responses to Domestic Abuse: A Cumbrian Case Study’ found that while 71% of church goers were aware of domestic abuse, only 37.6% thought it was a church problem. These results are particularly concerning when read alongside the fact that the report found that 1 in 4 of the 438 church attendees who responded had experienced an abusive relationship. In the words of Restored, who partnered on this research work,
If such findings were replicated across churches UK-wide, this suggests a very serious problemhttps://www.restored-uk.org/blog/domestic-abuse-and-power-silence-why-talking-about-domestic-abuse-first-step-forward-churches/
The findings are perhaps more worrying still when we also recognise that accounts of GBV are present within the traditions and sacred texts that stand at the heart of Christianity too. How do we read this data in light of the biblical ‘Texts of Terror’ – Genesis 16-18, Genesis 34, Judges 19, 2 Sam 12, Hosea 1-3. Ezekiel 16 and 23, — that recount troubling descriptions of violence against women that give little attention to the voice of the survivor of GBV or the trauma they experience? Do Christian survivors of GBV have different experiences in their journey because of their faith commitment? Are Christian survivors presented with particular challenges to healing because of these problematic biblical accounts? But equally, can Scripture provide messages of support and empathy for individuals dealing with the trauma of GBV? Reflecting on this question and many others with Dr Kirsi Cobb (Cliff College), we found that there is little research to date on the impact biblical texts have on survivors of sexual and domestic abuse who have a personal Christian faith commitment, and even less work that seeks to place collaboration between academics and church and charity practitioners working with Christian survivors at its centre. Our conclusions were supported by the results of a research day hosted by Prof Johanna Stiebert for the Shiloh Project in 2019.
So in 2020, Kirsi and I applied to develop a project that would aim to provide new insights into the collaborative potential for transdisciplinary and cross-denominational responses to gender-based violence in the context of Bible reading. We wished to support academic research, which would be both lead by, but also help to better facilitate church and charity practitioners in their education and support of Christian communities and in particular survivors of gender-based violence.
On April 1 2022, a new AHRC funded networking project lead by myself and Dr Kirsi Cobb (Cliff College), Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo Age, began. Our aim… to create more opportunities for academics from Biblical Studies, Religious Studies and Practical Theology to collaborate with church and charity practitioners to co-produce new work on pressing research questions such as: what methods and practices most effectively support and encourage transdisciplinary research around academic and Christian responses to gender-based violence and Bible reading? What does reading the Bible alongside contemporary experiences of gender-based violence reveal about the text, both in terms of its ancient origins as well as its current impacts? What might a hermeneutics of survival entail? And how could it be applied to biblical texts by academic and Christian communities?
So, what will this project look like? The network will be built across four events — two colloquia and two workshops — focused on two themes, Coercive Control and Hypermasculinity. Our hope is that these meetings will provide a platform for speakers and attendees to thoroughly reflect on the #MeToo movement’s impact on the way we read and research the Bible in the twenty-first century – including by bringing into focus both celebrations of, and critical engagements with, this movement. But we are not interested in setting up a series of conferences that result in scholarly outputs that speak only out from and back into the context of higher education. Rather, by fostering time and support for collaborative engagement between academics and practitioners, we wish to explore ways that University researchers working on the Bible can feed into the practice of church and charity workers who actively support survivors of gender-based violence, and likewise for academics to listen to the work of church and charity practitioners in order to reconsider and reshape future research agendas around the study of biblical texts within the Academy.
Ahead of each colloquia, Kirsi and I will connect academics and practitioners into collaborative pairs. For the first event on 10 September 2022, which is the colloquium focused on coercive control, we have 8 excellent speakers working in 4 pairs who will present on a range of important and timely topics. Not only are we looking forward to hearing about their research, but also their experience of working together to co-produce reflections on their collaborations. The speakers are: Lisa Oakley (University of Chester), Colin Perkins (Diocesan Safeguarding Adviser, Diocese of Chichester), Katie Cross (University of Aberdeen), Rosemary Hack and Matt Britton (Press Red), Siobhán Jolley (University of Manchester), Beth Keith (St Mark’s Broomhill and Broomhall, Sheffield), Meghan Hansen (University of Oxford), and Robyn Riggans (WORTH- Women on the Road to Healing).
We hope you will be able to join us for this first event – either in person or online – to launch our new network, which we see as arriving into an already rich research context on the Bible and violence, and which we like to think will compliment and co-operate with other existing, excellent research collectives such as the Shiloh Project and, of course, the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.
(button takes you to Eventbrite to book your free ticket)
Holly Morse is Lecturer in Bible, Gender and Culture at the University of Manchester, a co-director of the Bible, Gender and Church Research Centre, and author of Encountering Eve’s Afterlives: A New Reception Critical Approach to Genesis 2-4 (OUP 2020). In this book, she seeks to destabilize the persistently pessimistic framing of Eve as a highly negative symbol of femininity within Western culture by engaging with marginal, and even heretical, interpretations that focus on more positive aspects of her character. The book began its life as Holly’s DPhil thesis at the University of Oxford, supervised by Prof Susan Gillingham. Holly has also written on biblical literature, gender, feminist activism, trauma, abuse, and the Bible in visual arts and popular culture (see https://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/holly.morse.html). Currently, in addition to the AHRC Network project ‘Abusing God: Reading the Bible in the #MeToo Age’, Holly is also researching cultural feminisations of transgressive knowledge and magic in the West from antiquity to today.
Kirsi Cobb is a lecturer in biblical studies at Cliff College and a co-director of the Bible, Gender and Church Research Centre. 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 a reading of Lot’s daughters in Genesis 19 in light of trauma theory and revenge, as well as a study on gender and violence in Hosea 2. For more details see: https://cliffcollege.academia.edu/KirsiCobb
As always, guest blogs are invited to stimulate comment and discussion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.