Why did Hope for Justice remove Ben Cooley?

Ben Cooley is a big name in evangelicalism.  Often perceived to be THE founder of Hope For Justice, as with many charities, he didn’t actually do it alone.  The organisation was actually founded by a group of people who organised an event called The Stand, held in 2008.  This group included Debbie Cooley (Ben’s wife), Marion and Rob White (long time leaders at Spring Harvest; Rob was previously National Director of Youth for Christ), Tony and Viv Jackson, Rob Allen, Tim Nelson, Chris Dacre, and Martin Warner.  In 2014,  Hope For Justice “joined forces” with award winning Christian artist Natalie Grant’s charity Abolition International.  In 2018, Hope for Justice took over” Retrak, a charity working with street children.

While this sounds like a highly collaborative journey full of many significant people, according to the blurb for Cooley’s book (endorsed by previous Prime Minister Theresa May), the Hope for Justice journey was “from one man with a wobbly desk to an international organisation now rescuing victims in the UK, US, Cambodia and Norway.” 

On 28th May 2021, Hope For Justice announced they had a new CEO, Tim Nelson.  On their website’s news page, a small image of Nelson appears above the headline in the corner of the page.  It could be missed if one wasn’t looking for it.  Within the article announcing Tim Nelson as the new CEOwe find that the first half of the article is actually about an investigation into Ben Cooley’s behaviour which resulted in a disciplinary hearing that, subject to appeal, led them to remove Ben Cooley from the organisation. 

Screenshot of Hope for Justice’s news page on 13th June 2021.

This section is directly quoted from the news article:

Hope for Justice is today announcing the appointment of Tim Nelson as its interim CEO, following the departure of Ben Cooley.

Chair of Hope for Justice Trustees, Peter Elson comments: “Hope for Justice stands by its four key values of Honouring, Openness, Professional and Empowering and expects all employees to conduct themselves to appropriate standards. Earlier this year, trustees directly received allegations from two former employees, via the charity’s confidential whistleblowing procedure which maintains confidentiality throughout the process. The complaints were made regarding the behaviours of Ben Cooley.

“While the allegations were not of a criminal nature and no other members of the leadership team were implicated, they were determined to be serious and the Charity Commission was duly informed.

“The trustee board took immediate action in commissioning an independent and experienced investigator and legal counsel on 28 January 2021. The independent investigator was charged with conducting an evidence-based investigation in order to establish the full facts and circumstances relating to the concerns and allegations presented. In order for the allegations to be fully investigated, Ben Cooley was instructed to take a leave of absence.  [Incidentally, Cooley was representing Hope For Justice on the Exodus Road podcast on 12th February 2021, Joy.FM on 25th February 2021, the Backpack Show podcast on 5th March 2021].

“On completion of the investigation a written report was submitted to the appointed investigation case team within the trustee board and, based on the investigation findings and recommendations, disciplinary action was then initiated. Ben Cooley subsequently attended a disciplinary hearing and is no longer with the organisation, subject to the potential of an appeal.”

Co-founder of Hope for Justice Tim Nelson has been appointed interim CEO.

Civil Society News reported additional comments from the Charity Commission:

In January 2021 we assessed a serious incident report submitted by the charity, in connection with concerns about the former chief executive. Based on the information provided, we determined that the charity was handling the matter appropriately and that no further action was required by the Commission. The charity has kept us informed throughout the independent investigation. We recently received an update to the serious incident report and are currently assessing this information. We cannot comment further at this time.”

The article also explains that Hope For Justice state that no payment has been made to Cooley “following his departure”.  They say that Cooley told them, “he thought more consideration should have been given ‘to the fact that there was limited evidence available due to the historical nature of the allegation’…Whilst I fundamentally disagree with the outcome, after 13 years as the founder and chief executive of Hope for Justice, my only hope and prayer is that it will continue to thrive and rescue countless men, women and children caught up in human trafficking”.

These comments are echoed on his Facebook page.  Above a photograph of him staring at a lake, he frames himself as a martyr for the cause of ending trafficking;

“I have gone without, sacrificed tirelessly, stood on stages with tens of thousands to raise my voice in this fight for freedom! I have had my life threatened, gained friends and lost friends, figured out how to trust, love and rescue sacrificially.” He goes onto dispute the organisation’s decision: “One thing I am sure of, Hope For Justice has left a mark on my life that is so incomparable I will never be the same. But, my friends, it is time for me to move on. I look forward to sharing with you the next part of my journey. Whilst I cannot agree with decisions recently being made around my leaving Hope for Justice. Hope For Justice will forever be in my heart.”

While I have no doubt Cooley has had struggles, page 31 of the organisation’s most recent Annual Report declares one salary of between £80,000 – £89,999, which presumably would be Cooley’s as CEO.  Interestingly, a 2020 job advert for Cooley’s Executive Assistant, included the role being paid at between £40,000 – £50,000, it seems that “going without” is not a current element of being a paid member of the Hope For Justice team.  Incidentally (or perhaps not), the job advert states, “The role involves providing comprehensive support and guidance to the CEO, including anticipating his needs, as well as providing critical thinking to problems.”

Some organisations can claim a CEO’s failure is not an institutional issue (for instance, Katie Ghose leaving Women’s Aid) because they are simply a member of staff and some organisation founders’ later views are able to be divorced from the organisation’s current practice (e.g. Erin Pizzey and Refuge).  However, Ben Cooley and Hope for Justice have a highly symbiotic relationship.  Cooley’s rise from “one man with a wobbly desk” is entirely dependent on his role within Hope for Justice.  While he may have lots of skills, what sets him apart from other communicators, speakers or leaders is his story of being a hero rescuing those subjected to modern slavery.  Similarly, Hope for Justice’s rise to having an £8.7 million turnover has been (at least in Christian circles) dependent on Cooley as figurehead.  In our Christian culture, where so much is dependent on the cult of personality, Cooley’s charisma and communication skill have enabled the organisation to get where it is today.  Their relationship has been highly co-dependent.

As such, it seems disingenuous that the Hope for Justice press release on Cooley’s departure does not once refer to Cooley’s role within the organisation, neither as founder, CEO or figure head.  This does not seem to reflect their value of “openness”.  Similarly, while it is understandable that there are confidentiality requirements to protect the whistleblowers in the case, it is concerning that no further information has been given as to the nature of Cooley’s conduct.  In fact, their press release is written in a way that does not directly state that Cooley’s conduct is the cause of his departure, instead that must be ascertained from the overall narrative provided.  

Given the nature of Hope for Justice’s work, I think there are particular questions that must be answered by the organisation.  This is an organisation set up to respond to some of the most egregious forms of power misuse across the world today.  Power misuse which is predominantly perpetrated by men towards women.  Cooley has had a large public platform  trading on this; being portrayed (and portraying himself) as a hero rescuing primarily (but not solely) women subject to severe and sustained male power and male violence.  If Cooley’s conduct has in any way involved power misuse, particularly towards women, then this must be made clear.  While it is understandable to want to protect the former whistleblowing employees, it is also extremely important that if Cooley’s behaviour is related to power misuse and/or mistreatment of women, that must be made clear, not least for the sake of any future colleagues of Ben Cooley.  Given that his EA was expected to be able to “anticipate his needs”, such questions become more prescient.  If Cooley’s behaviour is not related to power misuse or mistreatment of women, it is also crucial for Hope for Justice to make this clear, as in the midst of the Me Too movement, it is far too easy for assumptions to be made which could be damaging to Cooley’s reputation.  

From all of this there are many glaring questions that must be answered: 

  • How is Hope For Justice’s value of openness being enacted when Ben Cooley’s removal is not headline news?  And when the statement is worded in a way that gives no information as to the substance of the issues?
  • Tim Nelson (now interim CEO of the organisation) co-founded the organisation with Ben Cooley and has presumably worked closely with him for 12 years.  Is his new role compatible with his close previous relationship with Cooley?
  • If Cooley was instructed to take a leave of absence from Hope for Justice around 28th January 2021, why was he representing Hope For Justice in interviews in February and March 2021?
  • Ben Cooley has clearly acted in ways that have required for him to be removed as CEO of Hope for Justice, the organisation he co-founded.  This removal has apparently not included him receiving any severance payment.  Given the type of work Hope for Justice do, has Ben Cooley’s seemingly sackable conduct included power misuse and was that power misuse directed at women?
  • If Hope for Justice do not give any further information, what is there to stop Ben Cooley using his platform (built on Hope for Justice’s work) to make inaccurate claims about the situation?  Given that there are clearly ex-employees who have been troubled enough by Cooley’s behaviour to report it, it seems unfair on them for Cooley to be able to make such statements, unchallenged by those who know the truth.
  • Given recent reports of charities using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), can Hope for Justice confirm that they have not used NDAS within this, or any other situation?
  • Given the platform Ben Cooley has had within Christian culture, why have no Christian media outlets (to date) reported on the situation?
  • Similarly, give the number of organisations and those with a platform who have endorsed Cooley (Theresa May, Rend Collective, Jesus CultureNatalie Grant, his current publisher David C Cook, his previous publisher SPCKRob WhitePremier RadioSpring HarvestNew WineGlobal Leadership NetworkEdenAudacious ChurchC3, Life Church and others), what responsibility do they have now if he is using his platform to deny wrongdoing that was compelling enough for Hope For Justice to remove him from the organisation?
  • Given that so much male violence towards women is reported long after the fact, what can be made of Ben Cooley’s assertions that the allegations against are not credible because they are historic?  Is that an appropriate thing for him to say, given that his platform has been built on responding to male violence towards women?  Or could such comments fuel the discrediting of women who disclose historic incidents of male violence?

I’m sure these are not the only questions raised by the situation, but I hope Hope for Justice in the spirit of the openness they hold as a core value, are willing to answer as many of these questions as possible, as publicly as possible.

I will update this blog with any further information that is provided to me.

Was Jesus Sexually Abused?

Introduction

Was Jesus a victim of sexual abuse?  According to new book, When Did We See You Naked?, edited by David Tombs, Jayme Reaves and Rocio Figueroa, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”  While I plan to write an article in due course about the book itself, David Tombs’ 1999 article ‘Crucifixion, State Terror and Sexual Abuse’ forms the basis of every contributor’s a priori assumption that Jesus was indeed sexually abused.  From Tombs’ paper springs forth all manner of theological ideas within the book.  Before writing a paper engaging with the book itself, it seemed important to unpick the position taken by Tombs’ within his 1999 article, which forms the basis of the majority of arguments within When Did We See You Naked?.

As an expert in sexual violence, I have been working for over a decade with women who have been sexually abused by men.  My work is now spent training practitioners from across the UK and beyond on how to work with those who have been abused.  I am fully supportive of anyone who wants to ensure the church is a safer space for those who have been abused.  Having spent many hours delivering lectures and training to ordinands, church leaders and others, I am keen to embrace any ideas which will work towards ensuring that churches and the wider Christian community understand and respond effectively to men’s violence towards women, children, and other men.  However, the premise of Tombs’ article is only valid if Jesus was actually sexually abused.  While I applaud the deep concern for people who have been abused, expressed within Tombs’ article, I will argue that Tombs’ approach is highly speculative, to the point that he ignores both historical and textual evidence.  I will also suggest that the unintended consequences of his ideas could include greater harm being done, by Christians, to those who have been sexually abused.  The potential damage that these ideas could generate means that engaging with them is a moral and professional imperative.

Given that liberation theology underpins Tombs’ article, it is useful to understand his location to the subject.   He is originally from the UK,[1] but is now based in New Zealand.  He is a white, male professor who has a “longstanding interest in contextual and liberation theologies.”[2]  The context of Tombs’ 1999 article is that of state terror, specifically perpetrated in the 1960s and 1970s by military regimes in Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina.[3]  For Tombs, Roman crucifixion “fits the profile of public state torture very well” when examined in light of the abuses perpetrated by these Latin American regimes.[4]  Following a liberation theology method, he asserts that “biblical texts can be legitimately read with the social and political situations of contemporary cultures of oppression in mind.”[5]  

Defining sexual abuse

The questions Tombs seeks to answer within his article are 1) whether Jesus was sexually humiliated during the crucifixion and, b) whether Jesus could have been sexually assaulted in ways elided within the Gospel crucifixion accounts.  Tombs does little to explicitly define what sexual abuse is; therefore before engaging with the article, I want to provide a definition of sexual abuse to ensure clarity in the ensuing discussion. 

Within UK law, sexual abuse definitions differ slightly between nations.  Broadly, rape is understood to be ‘when a person uses their penis without consent to penetrate the vagina, mouth, or anus of another person.’[6]  Sexual assault includes a person being ‘coerced or physically forced to engage against their will, or when a person, male or female, touches another person sexually without their consent.’[7]  Child sexual abuse can involve ‘forcing or inciting a child to take part in sexual activity, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening’.[8]  It may include physical contact (rape, masturbation, kissing, rubbing, touching outside of clothing) and non-contact activities (looking at or producing sexual images, grooming a child in preparation for abuse).[9]  Owning or sharing indecent images of children is also a sexual offence.[10]  Within Scotland, the legislation adds that child sexual abuse ‘is any act that involves the child in any activity for the sexual gratification of another person.’[11]

While these legally rooted definitions are important, feminists have long asserted that, “rape is a crime of violence, not sexuality”,[12] rooted in the rapist’s desire for power over their victim.  Some thinkers informed by this analysis assert that sexual abuse is about power and not sex.  However, it is crucial to understand that this feminist analysis was borne within a context (the late 1970s – 1990s) when sexual violence was understood to be motivated by uncontrolled lust.[13]  Such an analysis of power and violence enabled women to reject being blamed for being sexually attractive or wearing sexual clothes.  It placed the responsibility onto men.  However, this power analysis ‘may not adequately appreciate the full nature or extent of the harm experienced by a victim of rape,’[14]  because it marginalises the sexual motivation of abuse.  Many studies have found that it is the perpetrators’ beliefs of sexual entitlement that bridge the gap between power/violence and sexuality within sexual abuse.[15]  The abuser’s belief of sexual entitlement drives his behaviour, legitimising his right to sexual access to women’s, children’s (and in some cases, men’s) bodies.

Rape Crisis England and Wales include female genital mutilation (FGM) within their definition of sexual violence because it intentionally alters or causes ‘injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons’.[16]  As such, acts which injure the genitals or wider reproductive organs can be understood as sexual violence.  This injuring of genitals is quite different to the Scottish definition of sexual abuse as occurring ‘for the sexual gratification of another person’; while the violence involves sexual organs, the act itself is not ‘to do with sexual activity’ but does have unbearably significant impact on victims’ future sexual activity.

While it may be difficult to offer a clear definition that combines these elements, these definitions suggest that sexual violence and sexual abuse may coalesce (e.g. forced penetration, coerced sexual acts).  Some acts may be solely sexually violent (e.g. injuring of genitals) and others may be solely for another’s sexual gratification (e.g. masturbating to images of child sexual abuse).  Within a feminist analysis, sexual abuse and sexual violence are both motivated by the perpetrator’s beliefs of sexual entitlement. 

Having established this definition and clarified that sexual abuse and sexual violence can be separate and/or part of one act (or a series of acts), I move onto analysis of Tombs’ article.  I will start by reviewing evidence within the article.  Following this, I will discuss of some of the points raised, particularly focussing on the lived reality of those who have been sexually abused.  I will go on to make some observations about Jesus’ solidarity with sexually abused people.

Article review

Redefining sexual abuse

It is entirely plausible to state that both first century Judea and twentieth century Latin America were ruled by oppressive military regimes and that their torturous practices, designed to control and oppress, will have some similarities given that that there are only a finite number of ways to torture humans into submission.  However, it is a leap for Tombs to then state that “the Latin American torture practices of the 1970s and 1980s can provide helpful insights into neglected aspects of crucifixion in Palestine [almost 2000 years previously].”[17]  Tombs does not explain why Latin America specifically offers this insight, rather than for instance, Western colonial torture in India, early modern torture of witches in England, or Nazi torture of Jews during the Holocaust.  

Tombs evidences that Latin American torture practices included a “common sexual element”,[18]  detailing horrific practices including administering electric shocks to the genitals, forced nudity, penetration anally or vaginally with objects or animals, and soldiers mutilating murdered prisoners’ genitals or reproductive organs.[19]  After detailing these deeply disturbing torture techniques, Tombs introduces a hermeneutic of suspicion, asking “against this background, the crucifixion of Jesus may be viewed with a disturbing question in mind: to what extent did the torture and crucifixion of Jesus involve some form of sexual abuse?”[20]  Again, Tombs provides no explanation as to why this background, and not some other background, of state terror is of particular relevance to the crucifixion. 

The torture techniques described are horrific.  It seems that Tombs is assuming these acts constitute sexual abuse because they involve the victims’ sexual organs.  However, as already established, such violent acts have very little to do with ‘sexual activity’ as found within UK definitions of sexual abuse.  They are also unlikely to correspond with the Scottish understanding of acts for the ‘sexual gratification of another person’.  In a similar way to female genital mutilation of girls and women or the castration of boys and men, the injury to sexual organs has huge sexual implications and deeply damages the sexuality of those who are mutilated; however, these violating acts are tangibly different to a perpetrator gaining sexual pleasure and arousal from violating another person.  Of course there will be perpetrators of state terror who (disturbingly) will be sexually aroused while perpetrating these acts but, as with FGM and castration, the underlying motivation is generally about violence, genocide and inflicting pain, rather than about the perpetrators’ sexual gratification.  With the exception of FGM, violent state torture is of a different typology to the forms of sexual violence perpetrated across most places in the world.  Generally, those who have been sexually abused are unlikely to recognise injury to reproductive organs, outside of any wider sexualised context as like what was done to them. 

In a separate paper, Tombs and Figueroa argue the well-worn feminist adage that “sexual abuse is best understood in terms of power and control expressed in sexualized ways.”[21]  Yet this is not the whole picture.  Potential, or actual, damage to sexual organs is deeply traumatic; however, those who have been subjected to forms of sexual violence in which the perpetrator overtly, or even implicitly, gained sexual arousal and sexual pleasure from the abuse must reckon with significantly different trauma.  Where the perpetrator has blamed the person they have abused (usually a child or woman), for “leading them on” or “asking for it”, this again produces different aspects of trauma to those subjected to genital injury within a context of torture. 

A powerful resource for understanding the needs and strategies of traumatised people is the British Psychological Society’s ‘Power Threat Meaning Framework’.[22]  This model seeks to offer an alternative to medicalising distress via the psychiatric system, medication and diagnosis.  Instead of asking “what is wrong with you?”, the Power Threat Meaning Framework asks, “what has happened to you?” Within this framework, a traumatised person is encouraged to consider 1) how power was taken away from them; 2) what was threatened when power was taken away; 3) what meaning they made of their life as a result of this; and 4) what they had to do to survive.[23]  

Such a model resists ‘the oppression of totalizing narratives as…played out in the stories we tell about ourselves’.[24]The specificity of each person’s experiences is crucial.  The man who has survived torture which included having his genitals electric shocked will identify the power that was taken away, what was threatened through that, the meanings he has made (and the new meanings he has the potential to make) and the ways he survived.  These answers will be entirely different to the woman whose boyfriend raped her repeatedly, reproductively coercing her into three pregnancies.  While both of their experiences are deeply traumatic and both include a sexualised element, what has been done to them is entirely different.  This helps us to understand that broad categories of sexual abuse may be unhelpful and do not speak to people’s lived reality.  As McCarroll explains, ‘it is in recovering smaller, more local and multiple narratives that the contours of hope can emerge as complexity that defies all totalizing attempts.’[25]

This is why Tombs’ decision to categorise sexual abuse solely along lines that will further his own argument is problematic.  For Tombs, sexual abuse can be sexual humiliation or sexual assault.[26]  Sexual humiliation occurs in two ways; as a sexual abuse perpetration tactic and as an inherent consequence of sexual abuse.  A perpetrator may use explicitly sexually humiliating tactics (urinating or ejaculating on them, making them say family members’ names during sex, mocking their appearance, making them wash before sex).  Separate to this, being subjected to sexualised harm is, in and of itself, humiliating.  Even if the perpetrator’s tactics are not explicitly humiliating, sexualised harm is inherently humiliating, leaving the person subjected to it feeling ashamed.  Being forced or manipulated into sexual activity, being blamed for the perpetrator’s abuse, being rejected by the perpetrator after the abuse, finding elements of the abuse physically arousing are just some of the ways sexual abuse is humiliating.  In the same way that we would agree that bullying is always hurtful, while many bullies deliberately do hurtful things, sexual abuse is always humiliating while many sexual abusers deliberately do humiliating things.  As such, sexual humiliation is not a special category in its own right and cannot be separated from sexual abuse.  In a more recent publication, Tombs makes clear that:

Drawing this distinction between sexual humiliation and sexual assault for a reading of Jesus’ experience is therefore not intended to create a false hierarchy between the two forms of sexual abuse…we offer the distinction as a way to make clearer the sexual abuse which is explicit in the text (sexual humiliation), and to identify the further questions which might be asked of the text (in relation to sexual assault).[27]

While this is an understandable approach when using the hermeneutics of suspicion, grounded in Latin American state torture, it becomes untenable when making broader claims to separate out sexual abuse and sexual humiliation.  Tombs (and others) have made parallels between Jesus’ crucifixion and the #metoo movement.[28]  The #metoo movement focusses primarily on men’s sexual abuse of women in Hollywood, and more broadly their abuse of women within intimate relationships, workplaces or nights out.  However, in these cases, there is no delineation between humiliation and assault; they are one and the same.  The perpetrator is motivated by sexual entitlement and seeks sexual gratification at his victim’s expense.  When someone’s pain is the cause of another’s sexual pleasure, that in itself constitutes humiliation, and produces shame in those who have been abused.  As writer Rana Awdish explains, ‘shame doesn’t strike like a fist.  It rots its way in.  Shame unravels us at our most fragile seams…It’s unique in its devastating ability to make us feel exposed and worthless.’[29]   To make effective parallels regarding sexual abuse between the #metoo movement and Jesus’ crucifixion, Tombs’ analysis would need to work across both contexts which, given his distinction between sexual humiliation and sexual abuse, it does not.

The faulty analogy between Latin America and 1st Century Palestine

Returning to the 1999 article, various categorical assertions are made about crucifixion that seem to be less categorical when the sources (or lack of them) are individually investigated.  Tombs states, “crucifixion in the ancient world appears to have carried a strongly sexual element and should be understood as a form of sexual abuse that involved sexual humiliation and sometimes sexual assault.”[30]  No evidence is provided for this statement.

While it is not impossible to make parallels between ancient and modern torture, it is also important to recognise that the purpose of modern torture in Latin America state torture, as Cavanaugh explains, is about producing the enemy, rather than punishing them: 

We misunderstand modern torture, however, if we fail to see that enemies of the regime are not so much punished as produced in the torture chamber. Torture does not uncover and penalize a certain type of discourse, but rather creates a discourse of its own and uses it to realize the state’s claims to power over the bodies of its citizens.[31]

This process seems at odds with the crucifixion narrative which includes a concerted effort by Pilate to avoid an innocent man being punished. It is worth noting that Romans rarely crucified Roman citizens, saving this brutal punishment for “slaves, disgraced soldiers, Christians and foreigners”.[32]  This suggests that while Latin American state torture was designed to terrorise citizens, within first century Palestine, crucifixion was a technique for ensuring Roman imperial hegemony and their grip on political power, rather than justifying the “state’s claim to power.”  This also suggests that we must be cautious about attributing interpersonal sexualised motives to crucifixion, as is the case when offering parallels between Jesus’ crucifixion and the modern reality of sexual violence.[33]

Tombs goes on to say, “In a patriarchal society in which men competed against each other to display virility in terms of sexual power over others, the public display of the naked victim by the ‘victors’…carried the message of sexual domination.”[34]  The reference for this statement is two stories from 1 Samuel.  The first is of David bringing Saul two hundred Philistine foreskins in order him to be allowed to marry Saul’s daughter Michal (1 Samuel 18:20–26).  This story is provided without comment to evidence that “emasculation and sexual assault were also recognised practices at an earlier time in Israel’s history”.[35]  The passage seems tangential to an argument that the public display of a naked victim carried a message of sexual domination.  Second is Saul saying to his armour bearer to “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not thrust me through” (1 Samuel 31:4).  Tombs argues that this shows a fear of sexual assault, again not evidence that displaying a naked victim carried a message of sexual domination. It also is not a fait accompli that the passage is about sexual assault.  Stephen Holmes argues that the Hebrew translated “thrust” means “to pierce”,[36] rendering it unconvincing to read this passage as a threat of sexual assault (rather than stabbed by a sword).[37]  While there may be some value in exploring the values of pre-Roman Semitic culture, its value in considering the Roman approach to crucifixion and the cultural coding of sexuality and humiliation warrants more caution.

Tombs states, “victims were crucified naked in what amounted to a ritualised form of sexual humiliation.”[38]  Evidence provided for this statement comes from a book edited by Tombs, in which Graham Ward describes Judas’ kiss, the Temple guard’s slap, the Romans scourging Jesus, nailing him to a cross and piercing his side as “manifestations of desire in conflict [that] are sexually charged.”[39]  His overall description is of these as “erotic and political power games.” [40]  This is not an historically-rooted assertion about crucifixion generally, but rather a specific reflection on Jesus’ crucifixion, framing it as erotic and sexually charged.  While someone is of course entitled to argue such a thing, many would instead locate these acts far from eroticism or sex.  Given that Christians are exhorted to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” it seems a stretch for Ward to read erotic notions into Judas’ greeting,[41] and thus for Tombs to rely on this interpretation in building his own argument. 

Tombs goes on to argue, “depending on the position in which the victim was crucified, the display of the genitals could be specifically emphasised”.[42]  The source referenced in support of this (Y Yadin) does not mention an emphasis on the genitals; rather, he is disputing a previous assertion by Nicu Haas.  Haas worked on the only known remains of a man crucified at the time of Jesus.[43]  Haas argued that the remains proved the man was crucified with his legs together,[44] Yadin counters that the man was crucified upside, down with his legs apart.   However, Zias and Sekeles have provided further evidence that both Yadin and Haas are wrong and that the man was likely positioned with legs nailed either side of the cross (with no specific emphasis on the genitals).[45]  In addition to this, Yadin explains, “the main object of the executioners was to increase the pain by deliberately setting the knees apart.”[46]  This position was not about emasculation, sexualisation or emphasising genital prominence; it was about increasing pain.  Alongside this, a sample size of one is a rather small sample size to be using as the basis of any wider generalisations; one might even go so far as to say that the surviving evidence is simply too vague for us to make any sweeping statements of this sort, or to make any assumptions about common practices in Jesus’ Judaea.

Weak methodology 

Was Jesus naked?

Tombs states that, “…the sexual violence against the [crucifixion] victim was sometimes taken to the most brutal extreme with crosses that impaled the genitals of the victim…[this] suggests the highly sexualised context of violence in which Roman crucifixion sometimes took place.”[47]  The evidence for a highly sexualised context comes from Josephus (War I) who describes Hasmonean Alexander Janneus impaling eight hundred prisoners forcing them to watch him kill their  wives and children, “meanwhile cup in hand he reclined amidst his concubines and enjoyed the spectacle.”  This seems weak evidence for such sweeping statement.

With regard to the impaling of genitals, in his second, extended edition of Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World (published in 2019), Cook explicit states that Tombs is wrong in this analysis: “Tomb’s contention that crucifixion included rape by a sedile should be rejected.”[48]  He points out that such impalement would have caused immediate death due to blood loss.[49]  Contra Tombs’ who states that “crucifixion usually took place while the victim was naked”,[50] Cook is not convinced:

The Greek word (γυμνıς gumnos) Artemidorus uses in his book on dream interpretation for crucified individuals (Onir. 2.53), does not necessarily mean “completely nude.” Felicity Harley-McGowan, following a contention of Christopher H. Hallett, writes that those depicted as nudus in ancient sources, usually “retained an undergarment, the perizoma” (περÛζωμα).  In the Palatine graffito, the donkey man wears a short tunic that exposes part of his buttocks, but Alkimilla appears to be entirely nude in the graffito of Puteoli. One of the earliest surviving depictions of Christ crucified (preserved on the Pereire gem) shows him fully nude, and there is no surviving evidence to suggest that Jesus was depicted completely nude on the cross before the middle ages.  Exposure on the cross, even in a loincloth, was presumably humiliating.[51]

At various points Tombs states that the Gospels offer “clear indications”[52] about the “high level of sexual humiliation”[53] involved in Jesus’ crucifixion, and that the sexual abuse of Jesus is “unavoidable”[54] within the text.  Tombs assumes that in being stripped, Jesus’ nudity is inherently sexual.  However, it is not clear that Jesus was stripped.  Brown (who Tombs cites) points out that Jesus was clothed on his way to execution: “…the condemned would normally have been led naked to the place of execution; and so whether for the sake of Jesus, or of Jerusalem, or of the Jews, an exception has been made.”[55]  This suggests that even if one were to argue that forced nakedness is sexual abuse, Jesus was protected more than other crucifixion victims of his time.  When asking whether Jesus would have hung naked on the cross, Brown states “…the evangelists are not specific and perhaps would not have known; all we can discuss is likelihoods.”[56]  While Tombs characterises Brown’s position as “cautious support for the likelihood of full nakedness”, Brown himself gives evidence both for and against Jesus’ nakedness, finally stating “I would judge that there is no way to settle the question even if the evidence favours complete despoliation.”[57]  If anything, Brown seems to be saying that regardless of the evidence, we cannot be confident that Jesus was naked during the crucifixion.

Tombs argues that “full nakedness would have been particularly shameful in the Jewish context.”[58]  To evidence this, he references a Bible passage and a historical anecdote.  In 2 Samuel 10:4-5, David’s envoys have their beards half-shaved and cut off their garments “in the middle of their hips”.[59]  While their nakedness could be the main source of the shame, verse 5 tells us “when David was told about this, he sent messengers to meet the men, for they were greatly humiliated. The king said, “Stay at Jericho till your beards have grown, and then come back.””  As such, shaving the men’s beards seems to have been a core part of the humiliation.  This suggests at least some caution should be exercised in contextualising humiliation, given that in a contemporary Western context, having a beard shaved would likely not provoke such a reaction of shame.  Tombs also provides an anecdote from Josephus, in which a soldier was feared to cause a riot after he bent over, exposing himself to crowds while making “indecent noises”.  While this provides a delightful mental image of a rude soldier, it seems fairly tangential in proving that “full nakedness would have been particularly shameful”.  Josephus offering this detail does not necessarily illuminate the Jewish context, given that exposing genitals at people (while making indecent noises) is generally considered rude, regardless of who they are exposed to.[60]  The assumption that full nakedness would have been particularly shameful seems even less convincing within a Jewish context where ritualised and communal bathing was a religious requirement,[61] and where Jesus would have been naked during his baptism.[62]  This is not to say that forced nakedness during crucifixion would not have been traumatic and designed to humiliate but, unlike the Western twentieth century context in which Tombs is writing, public nakedness cannot be assumed to be sexual. 

Though not referenced by Tombs, Brown does mention Jewish issues with nudity. [63]  These include 1) a reference from Jubilees that God’s requirement to Adam was to “cover his shame”,[64] 2) a mention in the Sifre Devarim that “you’ll find no one in the world more degraded or pitiable than a person wandering naked in the streets”,[65] and 3) another mention in Jubilees of an exhortation from Noah to his sons that they should “cover the shame of their flesh…and guard their souls from fornication and uncleanness and all iniquity.”[66]

Although Noah’s exhortation to his sons relates to sexualised nakedness, the other two points refer to nakedness more generally.  From these sources, it is possible to ascertain that nudity could be seen as shameful and/or disempowering, but that doesn’t suggest mean the nakedness was sexualised.  It is quite possible to argue that the harm to Jesus of (possible) forced nakedness may have been greater given his cultural understanding of nudity, perhaps even argued to be shameful.  But that does not mean it would have been sexual. 

Was Jesus raped?

Tombs then moves from what the Gospels explicit state, and uses a hermeneutic of suspicion to assert “whilst the testimonies from Latin America do nothing to establish directly the historical facts of crucifixion in Palestine, they are highly suggestive for what may have happened within the closed walls of the praetorium.”[67]  Tombs suggests that the Gospel writers may have omitted this abuse due to not knowing about it, because they saw it as shameful, or because “…the Gospels are usually seen as notably biased in excusing the Romans for Jesus’ trial and death.”[68]  Given that the whole cohort of soldiers were assembled to mock Jesus in the praetorium, Tombs uses this context of a large group of men being gathered together (including some “Syrian auxiliaries who might have viewed their Jewish neighbours with particular hostility”),[69] to infer that Jesus may have been gang raped: “In view of the testimonies of gang rapes that are given by victims detained by security forces in the clandestine torture centres of Latin America this detail of overwhelming and hostile military power sounds a particularly disturbing note.”[70]

Based purely on speculation, there is barely any historical evidence from first century Palestine to justify the heinous and violent assertion that Jesus was raped.  Tombs cites Trexler in suggesting that a Roman master may have his slaves rape his adulterous wife’s paramour and Josephus’ claims (the historicity of which Tombs acknowledges, “cannot be taken for granted”),[71] that besieged Jewish militants used plants or sharp objects to anally or vaginally violate those potentially in possession of food.  The context of an adulterous wife or desperate besieged militants is totally different to around a thousand men mocking a condemned man.  The contemporary example Tombs uses is that of a woman being raped by soldiers in Guatemala, again a rather different (though equally horrific) context instead of the condemned Jesus surrounded by up to a thousand men.   

In support of his hypothesis, Tombs uses Plato’s description in Gorgias of a hypothetical crucifixion to explain that this “…indicates that castration may have taken place prior to crucifixion in some parts of the ancient world.”[72]  Plato’s description goes:

“How do you mean? If a man is caught while unjustly plotting [to make himself] a tyrant, and when he has been caught and tortured, castrated, had the eyes burnt out, and after many other grievous torments of every kind have been inflicted on him, and seeing them inflicted on his kids and wife, [he is] finally suspended [ἀνασταυρωθῇ] or tarred and burnt; will this man be happier than if he escapes and appoints [himself] as tyrant…”[73]

Samuelsson explains that the term asserted by Tombs as meaning “crucifixion”, but translated by him as “suspended” is not clear, “It is not possible to fully determine in what way Plato uses the rare ἀνασταυρωθῇ… etymology can be notoriously misleading.”[74]  It seems less than certain that the passage is about crucifixion, and within context, Plato’s dialogue does not offer historical evidence about crucifixion, but more a hypothetical list of torture techniques designed by Polus within the dialogue to dramatically argue against Socrates’ assertion that a wrongdoer will be “less wretched if he pays the penalty and meets with requital from gods and men.”[75]  For Polus, this is a ridiculous idea and to prove so he lists as many awful things as he can think of that could be done to a tyrant to prove that, actually, the tyrant who goes unpunished will indeed be less wretched.  This is about as historically accurate as future historians claiming the Human Centipede film is an accurate portrayal of human torture in the early 2000s.[76]

Tombs references Trexler’s Sex and Conquest at various points to evidence the use of male rape in the ancient world.  However, in citing Trexler to demonstrate that anal rape of male captives “was notoriously rife in the ancient world”,[77] Tombs neglects to mention that Trexler’s comments apply to prisoners of war.[78]  Beyond war, Trexler explains that, “male homosexual activity was a punishment ancient Mediterranean and European men might inflict on those who violated their female property.”[79] The other use of male-on-male rape, according to Trexler, related to patronage type systems whereby adolescent boys start as passive recipients of men’s sexual attention, eventually graduating to their own “active status”.[80]  Classicist Liz Gloyn explains that while we would understand this as statutory rape, the ancient Greek frames them as agents with the ability to grant or withhold their sexual favours, “elite Athenians would not have seen forcing the desired boy into sexual activity as acceptable; a significant part of the relationship dynamic involved persuading him to give in to your advances despite his initial resistance. This is, of course, sounding very much like grooming in contemporary terms, but for the Athenians this was a normalised part of the practice of pederasty, and not understood as sexual violence.”[81]  No mention is made by Trexler within the texts Tombs’ references to the rape of criminals more generally. Tombs speculates that in view of this background (rape of male prisoners of war, rape of male paramours and rape of adolescent boys in a patronage system) we should consider whether Judas’ kiss might have “set events in motion that led to some form of sexual assault in the praetorium of Pilate.”[82]  The background suggested seems of little relevance to the arrest of a religious leader and political dissident in first century Palestine, and this is an infirm basis for speculation.

Tombs’ suggests that dressing Jesus in bright clothing may have been a “prelude to sexual assault”.[83] This seems related to Trexler mentioning that “military history is studded not only with dandified captured prisoners, but with gorgeously dressed domestic soldiers who attended the likes of rulers such as Darius III, William Rufus of England and Henry III of France.”[84]  This mention of dress seems far removed from first century Palestine and the crucifixion of Jesus.  As Trexler is careful to point out, “differences not only in space but in time can be massive: fifth century Greeks had a positive attitude toward the male body, yet in the Hellenistic (323 – 31 BC) period that attitude is said to have been superseded by an ascetic, even negative disposition toward the flesh.”[85]  

As other theologians have noted, placing Jesus in a purple robe relates to the wider narrative mocking claims of him being the “King of the Jews”.[86]  As Myers explains,

They ridicule Jesus by dressing him in purple…Mark may mean here one of their own Roman cloaks – symbol of everything their prisoner rejects: the military option and imperial power. Alternatively, it may connote a royal cape, such as the rebel leader Simon bar Giora donned when he surrendered to the Romans as defeated king.[87]

Tombs asserts that as there were up to a thousand men being present in the praetorium, this would make sexual violence more likely because of the “awkward inner tension of omnipotence and powerlessness” experienced by Roman soldiers.[88]  He asserts that an “instinctive response to such powerlessness is to impose one’s own power forcefully on those who are even less powerful.”[89]  The assertion that the tensions of a military professional army are directly applicable to Roman military of the first century AD seems problematic.  Tombs’ suggestion that abuse is an instinctive response to powerlessness is pervasive idea, but it is inaccurate.

Women (who across the world experience powerlessness at much greater rates than men) do not generally have an instinctive response of sexually violating children or others who are less powerful than them.[90]  And for men like Harvey Weinstein, Jimmy Saville, Bill Cosby, Ravi Zacharius and John Howard Yoder, their powerfulness was utilised to sexually abuse women and girls.  It is, as mentioned previously, sexual entitlement that motivates sexual abusers.

Attributing sexual violence to a sense of powerlessness is a deeply pervasive and damaging myth which makes it more difficult to effectively addressing men’s sexual violence.  It has also been held by some of the most crucial liberatory thinkers For instance, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed locates as the oppressed a peasant, who “shouts at his children, beats them and despairs.  He complains about his wife and thinks everything is dreadful. He doesn’t let off steam with the boss because he thinks the boss is a superior being.”[91]  Freire does not consider the peasant to also be an oppressor; no attention is paid to the impact on the peasant’s children or wife, because it is power and not entitlement which is centred within his analysis.  As Freire illustrates, this powerlessness myth can lead to undeserved empathy being given to the rapist (i.e. he’s a victim of powerlessness himself), something philosopher Kate Manne refers to as “himpathy”.[92]  It turns out that addressing men’s powerlessness does nothing to stop them sexually violating and raping women, children and other men.

Belo offers an alternative reading of how the Roman soldiers’ relative powerlessness within the military hierarchy can be understood within the Gospel narratives.  Belo sticks much more closely than Tombs to what is described by the Gospel writers, while also bringing in contemporary abuse of political prisoners: 

Throughout this scene (in which the body of Jesus is dressed and undressed at the whim of the soldiers, thus calling attention to its powerlessness in this space that is dominated by the force of arms) we have a parody, a carnival…This scene shows people being unleashed who have been subject to a constricting military discipline, and who now take advantage of a conquered adversary who might have forced them to fight and possibly even be killed. This sort of thing is often shown in the ferocity lower-rank police officials demonstrate when dealing with political prisoners.[93]

It is this analysis of Jesus as a political prisoner that is ironically lost as Tombs focusses purely on sexual abuse.  Jesus was crucified largely because he threatened the hegemonic systems of power, for example in His repeated preaching about another Kingdom with different priorities and rules.  His crucifixion functioned as a warning to others that such resistance was futile. 

Tombs’ survey of the Biblical and historical evidence leads him to assert that “Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse in the sexual humiliation he underwent and he may even have been a victim of sexual assault.”[94]  His very brief theological reflections on what he views as Jesus being sexually abuse, he states that such an analysis “can give new dignity and self-respect to those who continue to struggle with the stigma and other consequences of sexual abuse.”  He suggests that Jesus can become identified with them in line with Matthew 25:31-46, in which Jesus explains that when we neglect the hungry, thirsty, unwelcomed, unclothed, sick or those in prison, we neglect Jesus Himself.[95]  Tombs also asserts that “an a priori judgement that Jesus did not and could not suffer sexual abuse may accompany an unexamined assumption that Jesus was not fully human”,[96] going on to label this a form of docetic heresy.[97]

Discussion

Tombs’ argument that Jesus was sexually abused requires two things to be true: that Jesus was naked at points during the crucifixion, and that Jesus’ forced nakedness was a form of sexual abuse.  Tombs’ broader assertion is that, based on torture techniques in Latin America in the late 20th century, it is likely that in the praetorium Jesus was raped.

With regards to Jesus’ nakedness during the crucifixion, I have shown that much of Tombs’ evidence is disputed. Trexler does not state that rape was a normative part of first century Palestine’s treatment of criminals.  Brown does not offer confident assertions that Jesus was naked on the cross, with the Gospels suggesting that if anything, Jesus was protected from being led naked to the cross, unlike other prisoners (Matthew 27:31, Mark 15:20, Luke 22:11).  However, even if we were to accept Tombs’ evidence, is it accurate to describe forced nakedness as sexual abuse?  Or is “sexual abuse” more complex?

If a small child has a high temperature, they may feel cold, but be overheating.  In this instance, adults may forcibly strip the child to cool her down.  Would that stripping be sexually abuse?  No, because the intention of the adults involved is to protect the child’s health.  However, if the child was forcibly stripped as a punishment for not doing as she was told, this would be abuse, but would it constitute sexual abuse?  It would probably depend on the intention of the perpetrator (did they have sexualised intentions or want to cause sexual harm?) and how the child experienced the abuse (i.e. did they feel, either in the present or at a later date, as if they had been sexually violated?).  It would also depend on how nakedness (and sexuality) was culturally coded within the child’s context.  This may seem like “picking hairs” when what matters is that the child has been hurt, but when an assertion is made that something is sexual abuse, within a context of severe violence and murder (Jesus’ crucifixion), these are the types of questions that emerge.  

As a teenage girl, when I was surrounded by older adults, one of the men penetrated me vaginally, causing me significant pain.  I cried and asked him to stop, but he insisted he had to continue for a bit longer.  Without any wider context, it is possible to read this account and presume that I was being sexually assaulted; however, the context was that I was pregnant with my daughter and there were concerns for mine and her health.  The doctor did an internal examination with a speculum, in which it felt like some internal tissue was caught in the hinge of the speculum.  It was incredibly painful.  While I would articulate the experience as harmful and painful, it was not sexual abuse.  In order to manage being a pregnant teenager, I had to psychologically detach nakedness from sex.  At 18 years old, I had to be internally examined multiple times and then, when giving birth, had to endure numerous professionals looking at and touching my genitals.  In order to breastfeed my daughter, I had to find a way to view my breasts as hers for feeding, rather than as sexual organs.  This was crucial for me to manage the many invasions to my body that came with the many normalised medical procedures that come with being pregnant.  That my pregnancy occurred within a context of sexual violence (including reproductive coercion) has made my ability to delineate between sexual and non-sexual harm important in making sense of what was done to me and enabling me to be a capable mother to my children. 

In my extensive work supporting women who have been sexually abused (and in processing the sexual abuse I was subjected to), I have found that one of the first barriers to healing from sexual abuse is an inability to recognise that what has been done to us is abuse.[98]  It is rarely the case that we do not understand the abuse to be sexual.  There is something about sexuality that, while often inarticulable, is nevertheless intuitively known when it is experienced. As a child, being sexually groomed, I knew the comments the adult man made about my body were not okay, that the way he touched me felt different than other people.  Long before I had any conscious awareness of my sexuality, I knew what he was doing wasn’t right.  It took until another of his victims explicitly told me to stay away from him because he had sexually abused her that I had a language to describe what he was doing to me. 

One of the most brutal elements of sexual abuse is knowing that someone has gained sexual pleasure from hurting us.  It is why rape is about sex and power.  It does something deeply scarring to the soul, to have that beautiful gift of intimacy and grace defiled when the abuser gains sexual pleasure from coercing, hurting or violating us.  It is one of the deeply painful realities for women and children whose sexual abuse has been filmed or photographed: that the abuse never ends while men (and it usually is men) continue to be sexually aroused and sexually gratified by masturbating to the abuse that they were subjected to.  It is why men taking upskirt photos of women or secretly filming them in toilets is so sexually violating, not because the woman was doing anything sexual herself, but because the man is sexually active and aroused, violating her ability to exist in the world on her own terms.

Mutilation of sexual organs or forced nakedness are brutal, traumatic and deeply harmful, but when perpetrated by someone who is not motivated by sexual arousal, this separates those horrifying experiences from those for whom the perpetrator gains sexual pleasure.  This is not to say that both are not deeply harmful, but the assumption that one can be lumped in with another because they both involve sexual organs or nakedness is problematic and misunderstands how sexual abuse functions.  If the starting point is Latin American state torture, it is possible to see how the end point can be “Jesus was sexually abused”, because both twentieth century Latin America and first century Palestine provide contexts of state torture.  However, liberation theology (which is Tombs’ broad methodology) starts with the concerns of an oppressed population and seeks what the Gospel will say to them;[99]  a reading of Jesus’ crucifixion must start with the lived experience of those who have been abused.  While When Did We See You Naked?, the 2021 book edited by Tombs, Figueroa and Reaves includes contributors who have been sexually abused and a chapter of interviews with five nuns who had been sexually abused, every chapter in the book starts with Tombs’ 1999 article and not the experiences of sexually abused people.   It cannot be that one cohort’s experiences becomes universalised for all sexually abused people.  To make sweeping statements about sexual abuse outside of contexts of state torture, in relation to what Jesus was subjected to, does not centre the experiences of sexually abused people, but instead centres a paper by David Tombs, written in 1999.  If as Tombs states, “biblical texts can be legitimately read with the social and political situations of contemporary cultures of oppression in mind,”[100] this would suggest that each sexually abused person (and others with similar experiences) should be reading the biblical text with their own experiences in mind, rather than the experiences of Latin American torture survivors mediated through Tombs’ theological ideas.

No one can know what took place in the praetorium; however, the historical evidence Tombs provides is weak.  His argument more or less depends upon whether Latin American torture techniques are likely to have occurred in first century Palestine, and Cook explicitly debunks Tombs’ assertion of anal rape being used within crucifixion.  Tombs suggests that the assumption that Jesus was not or could not have been sexually abused may stem from attachment to a form of docetism.  However, that defence assumes that the only motivation for disputing Jesus was sexually abused is an inability to accept the possibility that Jesus could have had that done to Him.  However, if one does not find Tombs’ argument convincing, it is not succumbing to docetism to state that Jesus was not sexually abused.  It is asserting the truth that, while what was done to Jesus was horrific, there is no factual basis to categorise him as a victim of sexual abuse.

Some may ask, “Why does that matter?”  If this analysis helps people, then surely the veracity of the claims is less important?  Do made-up claims of sexual abuse against Jesus damage anyone?  Yes, they do.  One of the rallying cries of the #metoo movement has been “believe women”.[101]  This is because so often, when women disclose that men have sexually abused them, they are disbelieved.[102]  Freud renounced his initial views that women’s hysteria was caused by men’s sexual violence when he realised how harmful such a view was to polite society.[103]  The Netflix series Unbelievable recounts the true story of a young woman who is charged with filing a false rape report; the man who raped her perpetrated numerous other rapes.[104]  Men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby were only brought to justice on the testimony of many women, and Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Brett Kavanaugh showed clearly how deep disbelief of women goes.[105]  It does beg the question, if it was a woman telling us that Jesus was sexually abused, would we automatically believe her?  It does theology and those who have been sexually abused no good to categorically state that Jesus was sexually abused.  There is enough explicit and well-evidenced sexual abuse perpetrated throughout the Bible for theological dialogue and development, without the need to invent it in the crucifixion of Jesus.  If we are to ask the Church to believe those who have been sexually abused, it is crucially important that we do not undermine that message by inventing sexual abuse where there is none.  

Tombs references Matthew 25:31-46 to suggest that if Jesus had been sexually abused then that would enable Him to more fully identify with those who have been sexually abused.  Yet the power in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats is not that Jesus has been hungry, thirsty, a stranger, in need of clothes, sick or in prison, but that Jesus is to be found in those who have been oppressed and neglected.  It is in our care for them that we love Jesus.  We do not care for sexually abused people because Jesus was sexually abused; in caring for sexually abused people, and indeed as we care for any people who are marginalised, oppressed or neglected, we care for Jesus.

The potential unintended negative consequences of asserting that Jesus was sexually abused are vast.  Women have been encouraged to return to a violent or abusive husband with exhortations that, “Christ suffered for you, the least you can do is suffer for your marriage.”[106]  If it becomes accepted that Jesus was sexually abused, it is incredibly likely there will be perpetrators who will use this to demand their victims endure silently, ‘just as Jesus did’.  There may be demands from churches and Christians for sexually abused people to forgive those who abused them.  There may be those who assert that the rapists, the child abusers ‘do not know what they are doing’.[107]  Tombs and others argue that understanding Jesus was a victim of sexual abuse could be a pathway to healing for those who have been sexually abused, to overcome stigma and address harmful pastoral practice.  However, these harmful pastoral practices have remained present even as all the red letters of the Gospels cry out on behalf of the powerless and abused.  It is not a new victim we need, but ongoing challenging of Christian faith communities. 

The stigmatisation of those who have been sexually abused exists to keep everyone else psychologically safe: “if they brought this on themselves, then I can prevent my loved ones being hurt by ensuring they make good choices and keep myself safe by making good choices too.”  Theology is used as a weapon to beat sexually abused people not because we haven’t yet discovered Jesus as the perfect victim of sexual abuse, but because societies and individuals do not want to face the evil of abuse.  Adding new theology will not change that; it will simply add to the arsenal of weapons already used against those subjected to abuse and in collusion with sexual abusers.  

This is a much more profound and powerful argument for why pastoral care with sexually abused people matters so much.  Jesus doesn’t say “I was abused, therefore I am as broken as you.”  Instead, Jesus says, “in your very person, people can meet with me.  Because I am found in you.”  To root Jesus’ solidarity in a shared subjection to sexual abuse makes our relationship with Jesus significant through the unwanted acts done to us all.  That is a solidarity rooted in the abusers’ actions.  Instead, Jesus says to the sexually abused person, “You are how people meet with me; by loving you, they find me.”  In our shame, pain, woundedness and injury, Jesus says, “I am found in you”.  It is not a shared experience of abuse that binds us with Jesus, but the experience of being cared for and loved.  Jesus not being raped does not mean Jesus cannot be in solidarity with me in the rapes I was subjected to.  It simply means that his solidarity with me is not found in rape but in His love for me, and for that I am incredibly glad. 

Conclusion

Although liberation theology offers a hermeneutic of suspicion to consider the possibility that Jesus was sexually abused, on examining the historical evidence presented by David Tombs, there is little substance to the claims.  His article relies on decontextualised historical accounts of sexual violence towards men, asserting now debunked ideas about crucifixion and rape, with no clear evidence provided that Jesus was naked during the crucifixion.  The totalizing of sexual violence in ways that do not pay attention to the specific contexts of those who have been subjected to sexual abuse leads him to universalise torture practices involving sexual harm as relevant to all those who have been sexually abused.  This seems contrary to the underlying principles of liberation theology, which seek to contextualise theology within lived experience.  

The theological implications for asserting Jesus was sexually abused, given the poor evidence base, are concerning.  The potential for this theological idea to be used to hold those who have been sexually abused to the standard of a silent suffering Jesus could result in even more inadequate and damaging pastoral care.  Those who have been sexually abused, and Jesus Himself, deserve better than a fabricated account of sexual abuse, regardless of the incredibly positive intentions with which the idea has been created.

These positive intentions are also held by the twenty-two contributors to When Did We See You Naked?, who trust the accuracy in David Tombs’ analysis in ‘Crucifixion, State Terror and Sexual Abuse’.  Along with Jayme Reaves, in the introduction to the book, Tombs argues that ‘silence around the unspeakable’ is what leaves people unwilling to see Jesus as a sexually abused person.  In fact, the book’s title alludes to an assumption that we have all missed Jesus being sexually abused because we were unwilling to look unflinchingly at the trauma Jesus was subjected to.  If, as I argue, Jesus was not sexually abused, this is not the case.  In fact, we have not seen this sexual abuse because it is a fabrication.  In a future article, I will examine the book itself in more detail, informed by the critiques I have discussed here.

As feminist theologians have long argued, Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed is not rooted in His suffering, but in the power of good to triumph over evil, in love overcoming oppression.  Even the most fatalistic feminist theologians place traumatised people (including those who have been sexually abused) in Holy Saturday and not Good Friday.[108]  Jesus’ solidarity with those who have been sexually abused does not come through His having been similarly sexually abused, but in His identification with oppressed people and His beautiful assertion that loving Him is done through loving those who have been abused, neglected and hurt.  It is in love, and not abuse, that Jesus stands with those who have been sexually abused. 

Acknowledgements

I am so grateful to those who have read through this article as it has developed.  Mark Hewerdine gave me loads of good ideas, Sarah Williams gave me suggestions about format, Lucy Peppiatt pointed out how my arguments could be clearer, Liz Gloyn strengthened my writing and helped me feel confident in the historicity of what I have argued.

The Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence are running a symposium with David Tombs, Jayme Reaves, Elaine Storkey and Valerie Hobbs on 15th June, for those interested in further engagement with the subject. CLICK HERE to book in.

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Cook, John, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019.

CPS, ‘Sexual offences’, Crown Prosecution Service, (7th June 2021: https://www.cps.gov.uk/crime-info/sexual-offences).

CPS, ‘Indecent and Prohibited Images of Children’, Crown Prosecution Service, (7th June 2021: https://www.cps.gov.uk/legal-guidance/indecent-and-prohibited-images-children).

Figeuroa, Rocio and Tombs, David, Recognising Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse; Responses
from Sodalicio Survivors in Peru,
 University of Otago; Centre for Theology and Public Issues, 2019. 

Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, London: Penguin, 1996.

Gajanan, Mahita, ‘The True Story Behind the Netflix Series Unbelievable’, Time, (18th May 2021: https://time.com/5674986/unbelievable-netflix-true-story/). 

Haas, Nicu, ‘Anthropological Observations on the Skeletal Remains from Giv’at ha-Mivtar’, Israel Exploration Journal, 20:1/2 (1970) 38-59.

Hanson, Karl, Gizzarelli Rocco, Scott, Heather, ‘The Attitudes of Incest Offenders: Sexual Entitlement and Acceptance of Sex with Children’, Criminal Justice and Behavior, 21:2 (1994) 187-202. DOI:10.1177/0093854894021002001

Herman, Judith, Trauma and Recover; The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror, New York: Basic Books, 1992.

Hesse, Monica ‘‘Believe Women’ was a slogan. ‘Believe All Women’ is a straw man.’ The Washington Post, (18th May 2021: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/believe-women-was-a-slogan-believe-all-women-is-a-strawman/2020/05/11/6a3ff590-9314-11ea-9f5e-56d8239bf9ad_story.html). 

Hill, Melanie, Fischer, Ann, ‘Does entitlement mediate the link between masculinity and rape-related variables?’ Journal of Counseling Psychology, 48:1, (2001) 39–50. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0167.48.1.39.

Holmes, Stephen, ‘If you’, Twitter, (18th May 2021: https://twitter.com/SteveRHolmes/status/1393550629138743298?s=20). 

Holmes, Stephen, ‘Hmm.’ Twitter, (18th May 2021: https://twitter.com/SteveRHolmes/status/1393549010489708545?s=20).

Jewish Virtual Library, ‘Bathing Bath’, Jewish Virtual Library, (18th May 2021: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/bath-bathing). 

Jewkes, Rachel, Sikweyiya, Yadisa, Morrell, Robert, Dunkle, Kristin, ‘Gender Inequitable Masculinity and Sexual Entitlement in Rape Perpetration South Africa: Findings of a Cross-Sectional Study’, Sectional Study, 6:23, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0029590

Johnstone, Lucy & Boyle, Mary with Cromby, John, Dillon, Jacqui, Harper, David, Kinderman, Peter, Longden, Eleanor, Pilgrim, David & Read, John, The Power Threat Meaning Framework: Towards the identification of patterns in emotional distress, unusual experiences and troubled or troubling behaviour, as an alternative to functional psychiatric diagnosis, Leicester: British Psychological Society, 2018. 

Mackinnon, Catherine, Feminism Unmodified, Cambridge; Harvard Press, 1987.

Maung, Hane Htut, ‘A dilemma in rape crisis and a contribution from philosophy’, Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 8:93, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-021-00769-y, (2021).

McCarroll, Pamela, The End of Hope – The Beginning, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.

Myers, Ched, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2008.

Plato, Gorgias, (18th May 2021: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0178%3Atext%3DGorg.%3Apage%3D472). 

Public Health Scotland, ‘Childhood Sexual Abuse’, Public Health Scotland, (7th June 2021: http://www.healthscotland.scot/health-topics/gender-based-violence/childhood-sexual-abuse).

Rambo, Shelly, Spirit and Trauma; A Theology of Remaining, Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Rape Crisis, ‘Other kinds of sexual violence’, Rape Crisis, (7th June 2021: https://rapecrisis.org.uk/get-help/looking-for-information/what-is-sexual-violence/other-kinds-of-sexual-violence/what-is-fgm/).

Reaves, Jayme, Tombs, David, ‘#MeToo Jesus: naming Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse’, International Journal of Public Theology, 13 (2019), 387-412.

Retief, Francois, Cilliers, Louise, ‘The History and Pathology of Crucifixion’, South African Medical Journal, 93:12, (2003), 938-941. 

Reuters, ‘Nicu Haas, Anthropologist, Dies’, New York Times, (18th May 2021: https://www.nytimes.com/1987/12/12/obituaries/nicu-haas-anthropologist-dies.html).

Samuelsson, Gunnar, Crucifixion in Antiquity: An Inquiry into the Background and Significance of the New Testament Terminology of CrucifixionTübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011.

Six, Tom, The Human Centipede, Six Entertainment, 2009.

Slee, Nicola, ‘The Crucified Christa; A Re-evaluation’in Reaves, Jayme, Tombs, David, Figueroa, Rocio (eds.), When Did We See You Naked? London: SCM Press, 210-229.

Smith, Shanell, ‘“This is My Body; A Womanist Reflection on Jesus” Sexualised Trauma during His Crucifixion from a Survivor of Sexual Assault’, in Reaves, Jayme, Tombs, David, Figueroa, Rocio (eds.), When Did We See You Naked? London: SCM Press, 210-229.

Stern, Robert, “Jewish ritual immersion in the mikveh and the concept of communal immunity”, Hektoen International (18th May 2021: https://hekint.org/2018/05/24/jewish-ritual-immersion-in-the-mikveh-and-the-concept-of-communal-immunity/

Sweetland Edwards, Haley, ‘How Christine Blasey Ford’s Testimony Changed America’, Time, (18th May 2021: https://time.com/5415027/christine-blasey-ford-testimony/). 

Tombs, ‘Crucifixion, State Terror and Sexual Abuse’, Union Seminiary Quarterly Review, 53:1-2, (1999), 89-109.

Trexler, Richard, Sex and Conquest, Gender Violence, Political Order and the European Conquest of the Americas, Padstow: Polity Press, 1995.

University of Otago, ‘Professor David Tombs’, University of Otago website (18th May 2021 https://www.otago.ac.nz/theology/staff/tombs.html).

Ward, Graham, ‘The Gendered Body of the Jewish Jesus’, in Tombs, David, Porter, Wendy, Hayes, Michael (eds.),Religion and Sexuality, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998).

Yadin, Yigael, ‘Epigraphy and Crucifixion’, Israel Exploration Journal, 23:1 (1973) 18-22.

Zias and Sekeles, ‘The Crucified Man from Givcat ha-Mivtar– A Reappraisal’, The Biblical Archeologist, 48:3 (1985). DOI: https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/10.2307/3209939


[1] Figueroa and Tombs, Recognizing, 5.

[2] University of Otago, ‘Professor’

[3] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 90.

[4] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 95.

[5] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 95-6.

[6] CPS, ‘Sexual’.

[7] CPS, ‘Sexual’.

[8] CPS, ‘Sexual’.

[9] CPS, ‘Sexual’.

[10] CPS, ‘Indecent’.

[11] Public Health Scotland, ‘Childhood’/ 

[12] Mackinnon, Feminism, 85.

[13] Maung, ‘Dilemma’. 

[14] Maung, ‘Dilemma’.

[15] Hanson, Gizzarelli, Scott, ‘Attitudes’. Jewkes, Sikweyiya, Morrell, Dunkle, ‘Gender’. Hill and Fischer, ‘Entitlement’. Bouffard, ‘Exploring’. 

[16] Rape Crisis, ‘Other’. 

[17] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 96.

[18] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 96.

[19] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 97-8.

[20] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 100.

[21] Figueroa and Tombs, Recognizing, p5.

[22] British Psychological Society, ‘Power’. 

[23] Johnson and Boyle, Power, 9. 

[24] McCarroll, ‘Hope’, p8.

[25] McCarroll, ‘Hope’, p15.

[26] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 101

[27] Figueroa and Tombs, Recognizing, 3.

[28] Reaves and Tombs, ‘#MeToo’.

[29] Awdish, Shock, 169.

[30] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 101.

[31] Cavanaugh, Torture, 31.  Thanks to Mark Hewerdine for recommending this book.

[32] Retief and Cilliers, ‘History’.

[33] Thank you to Mark Hewerdine for pointing this out.

[34] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 101.

[35] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 101.

[36] Holmes, ‘Hmm’. 

[37] Holmes, ‘If you’.

[38] Tombs, 1999, 101.

[39] Ward, 1998, 179.

[40] Ward, 1998, 179.

[41] 2 Corinthians 3:12.

[42] Tombs, 1999, p.101 

[43] Reuters, ‘Nicu’.

[44] Haas, ‘Anthropological, 57.

[45] Zias and Sekeles, ‘Crucified’. 

[46] Yadin, ‘Epigraphy’, 20.

[47] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 102.

[48] Cook, Mediterrean, XXVII.

[49] Cook, Mediterrean, XXI.

[50] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’102.

[51] Cook, Mediterrean XXVII – XXVIII.

[52] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 107

[53] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 102.

[54] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 104

[55] Brown, Death, 952.

[56] Brown, Death, 953.

[57] Brown, Death, 953.

[58] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 103.

[59] 2 Samuel 10:4

[60] Thank you to Liz Gloyn for pointing this out.

[61] Stern, ‘Jewish’. Jewish, ‘Bathing’. 

[62] Slee, ‘Crucified’, 216.

[63] Brown, Death, p.953 

[64] Jubilees 3:30.

[65] Sifre Devarim 320:3.

[66] Jubilees 7:20.

[67] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 104.

[68] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 104.

[69] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 105

[70] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 105

[71] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 106

[72] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 106.

[73] Samuelsson, Antiquity, 65.

[74] Samuelsson, Antiquity, 6

[75] Plato, Gorgias, 472a. 

[76] Six, Human. Please only search for what this film is about if you have a strong stomach!

[77] Trexler, Sex, 20.

[78] Trexler, Sex, 20.

[79] Trexler, Sex, 24.

[80] Trexler, Sex, 27-31.

[81] Personal communication, June 2021.

[82] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 107.

[83] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 107.

[84] Trexler, Sex, 34.

[85] Trexler, Sex, 12-13.

[86] Matthew 27:11. Mark 15:2. Luke 23:3.  John 18:33.  

[87] Myers, Binding, 369.

[88] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 105.

[89] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 105.

[90] Collins, Out, 46.

[91] Freire, Pedagogy, 47.

[92] Chotiner, ‘Kate’. 

[93]  Belo, Materialist, 224,330-1.

[94] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 108.

[95] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 108.

[96] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 108.

[97] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 109.

[98] Collins, Out, 16-17.

[99] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 95-6.

[100] Tombs, ‘Crucifixion’, 95-6.

[101] Hesse, ‘Believe’. 

[102] Bons Storm, Incredible.

[103] Herman, 10-14.

[104] Gajanan, True.

[105] Sweetland Edwards, ‘Christine’. 

[106] Collins, Out, 95-96.

[107] Luke 32:34. Smith, ‘This’ 284.

[108] Rambo, Spirit, 138.

To My Christian Sisters

To my Christian sisters (and anyone else who wants to listen along),

I saw my therapist yesterday.  I’m not usually very good at being therapised.  Traumatised people are superpowered.  When the most horrendous things are done to us we develop superpowers.  We can make ourselves invisible and travel through time (for what else is dissociation?), we become superhumanly alert like Spiderman (the fancy name is hypervigilance), and our bodies gift us ways to survive.  But psychology and psychiatry are systems which see us as broken, in deficit, they want to fix us.  But there’s nothing wrong with us (if you’d like to read my MA dissertation arguing this, you’ll find it HERE).  And so I’m not normally one for therapy.  But fifteen years after leaving my abusive ex-husband I’m having to contend with a whole new set of traumas.  

This has been a horrendous week for women and girls.  The public and private abuse of Meghan Markle. Sarah Everard’s abduction and murder. Women bearing their wounds and scars on social media, hoping that this time Things Might Change.  I was on a few radio and TV shows over the last couple of days.  The onslaught towards me on social media has been unrelenting, as it is to any woman who publicly challenges the status quo.   

The Ending Violence Against Women coalition this week launched an anti-racism charter because the women’s sector is institutionally racist.  The government demands domestic abuse services bid for contracts, pitting women against other women (as was ever thus under patriarchy).  Large white-led women’s organisations hoover up the few contracts for black women’s services and then black and other minoritised women are failed by these services who don’t understand their needs.  The dominant white sector pushes for greater criminalisation of offenders, oblivious to the way this will disproportionately affect black men.  Sarah Turnridge painstakingly discovered that for all crimes, the Met Police are much more likely to publish a criminals mugshot if they are black.  No wonder black women don’t trust the so called “justice system”.  As white people, we are so concerned about being accused of racism that we trip up black people, and as they fall on their face, they’re gaslit into wondering whether it was their shoes or how they were walking that caused the problem.  It must be exhausting. 

Understandably, feminist spaces are not overly welcoming to Christianity and apart from a few lovely sisters without faith, there’s generally some degree of dismissal of my feminism among feminist spaces.  The exception has been the Faith and VAWG Coalition with a group of sisters from across different faiths working to make change.  One of the last events I attended before COVID shut everything down was their launch event.  There’s something extraordinary about being with sisters of different faiths.  We start from a place of understanding difference, knowing we are not on the same page about everything, but our experiences as women mean we can centre the ways we are on the same page.  

I’ve been doing this work since 2009.  Speaking out, challenging men, being a warrior for women who can’t speak out.  I feel similarly to Victoria Smith who tweeted that circa 2012, the awful treatment of the girl from Steubenville and Jimmy Saville’s offences were “gamechangers” for women’s rights.  Later, others thought that #metoo would change everything.  And yet, here we are again, women bearing their souls with the hope things will change.  Yesterday, my therapist asked me how I cope with the awfulness.  Doing this work, speaking out, the misogynistic backlash.  And I thought, dear Christian sisters, that how I keep going may be useful in you keeping going too.  (For those reading this with a different faith or no faith, you will have your own ways of making it through, and I honour you in those.)

Sisters, we know this world is not all there is, and death is not the end.  Yet, this world and our flesh and blood bodies are so important that God became one of us to change everything for us.  I’m a Christian because Jesus saved my life, I’m a feminist because feminism helped make sense of my life.  My liberation is caught up in both.  I don’t do this work of liberation expecting change.  I do it because the Holy Spirit is a fire raging within, demanding I speak out justice and freedom for women.  Like the burning bush, the Spirit burns but She never consumes me.  I act for change, live for change, but do not expect change.  It is not on me to change anyone, that’s on them (and God).  But the Spirit roars within and I must speak out, because that is what is required, regardless of the cost.

If our measure of success is whether or not change comes, we will become quickly disheartened and give up.  Sisters, seeking liberation for women is a calling from God. My only measure of success will be on the other side of death, if God commends me a good and faithful servant.  For that is what this work is, faithfulness to God.  

The passage that keeps me going is Jeremiah 17:8, “They will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream. It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green.”  Sisters, we cannot be rooted in the fight or the expectation of change.  We must instead root ourselves in God.  Those roots must go so deeply into God that whether change comes or does not, we are sustained by the Creator of everything.  We must mourn, we must speak, we must continue to fight.  But sisters, all of that is underpinned by our rootedness in God; in prayer, spiritual disciplines (mine include running, knitting and journaling), and in worship.  It is as I set my eyes and heart on the Creator of everything that I know I can keep fighting.  Sisters, this day, let us fix our eyes on what is unseen.  In doing so we will be equipped and enabled to fight that which we can see.

This morning, Rend Collective’s Yahweh helped in that rootedness in God, while Porter Gate’s We Will Make No Peace with Oppression continues to spur me on in this fight.  I hope they are an encouragement to you also.

Sisters, we can do this!

Farewell Evangelicalism

Back in 2016, I attended the Evangelical Alliance’s 170-year anniversary the same week as Trump was elected. I sat through the celebrations and back-patting about how brilliant they were and awaited the moment when someone would address the elephant in the room.  Trump’s election and what it meant for UK evangelicalism when it was white US evangelicals who voted him in.  As the speakers spoke about the split between US and UK evangelicals almost 200 years previously over American Christian support of slavery, I awaited someone making a parallel about Trump voters vs UK evangelicals.  But it didn’t come.

The Spirit of God stirred in me, as it stirs in me now, and I wrote THIS blog expressing my deep concerns at the Evangelical Alliance’s position.  At the time, I refused to leave evangelicalism.  It is was the faith of my childhood, the faith of my healing. But over the four years since then, things have changed.  There was no road to Damascus revelation accompanied by a “Farewell Evangelicalism” blog, but everyday faith with Jesus left me drifting away from Evangelicalism.  

I am a white, working-class woman (married to a man) and since 2016 I stopped feeling at home with the “evangelical” label.  I can’t imagine how much more painful this has been for black people or LGBT people.  Over the last four years, the Evangelical Alliance has studiously ignored Trump, while objecting to a strong definition of “spiritual abuse” because (among other things) it might mean that Christians can’t express non-affirming views about LGBT sexuality without being seen as spiritually abusive.  Their One People initiative attempts to promote racial justice, but with all the key people not involved in that project being white and nearly exclusive male, it seems rather tokenistic.  Particularly when you remain silent about the racism and bigotry of your brothers and sisters in the US.

Then came the beginning of 2020, which Premier Christianity declared on its front cover as The Year of Evangelism. It’s first line declared “Jesus is going to headline London’s O2 Arena this year.”  What they meant was that Franklin Graham was doing a UK evangelistic stadium tour.  Yes, that very same Franklin Graham that THIS WEEK likened Trump to Jesus and Speaker Pelosi to Judas Iscariot for impeaching Trump after he orchestrated a coup.   In January 2020, Evangelical Alliance Director, Peter Lynas, wrote an entire article about how efforts to ban the Franklin Graham tour were an attack on free speech, choosing to “two side” Franklin Graham, “Some see him as a bold prophetic voice, others see his political views as divisive and unhelpful.”  

Well, free speech or not, COVID-19 put paid to the 2020 stadium tour, which does beg the question that if Jesus was planning to headline the O2 in 2020, why he didn’t give the tour planners a bit of a heads up.  And 2020 grew tumultuously, culminating exactly four years after the 2016 Evangelical Alliance anniversary event in Joe Biden and (excitingly) Kamala Harris being elected to the White House.  

Trump spent four years giving evangelical Christians the power they desperately wanted (it turns out the Holy Spirit’s power isn’t enough).  In 2019 there was THAT photo of all the famous worship leaders praying for Trump.  Sean Feucht (joined at times by Michael W Smith and Mike Pence) becoming known as a COVID-19 super spreader for his large worship gatherings.  To such a degree that he proudly sells a “Jesus Christ Super Spreader” t-shirt on his website.  Bethel church leaders, known for the many songs UK evangelicals like to sing, prophesying (along with many others) that Trump would win the election, with Bethal co-founder Beni Johnson inciting her followers to defy democracy after Biden and Harris won.

The Evangelical Alliance’s silence has been deafening over the last four years.  They’ve managed to pull out all the theological stops to object to Christian safeguarding charity, ThirtyOne:Eight’s call for spiritual abuse to be defined and responded to, but they couldn’t speak out about the evil of American evangelicalism.  Back in 2016, I thought evangelicalism was a Thing worth fighting for.  Something to audaciously cling to, refusing to have it stolen by bigots and racists.  But it turned out, the Evangelical Alliance didn’t agree. 

Then in January 2021, after Trump had orchestrated a coup and been voted out, Evangelical Alliance CEO Gav Calver (whose father was Evangelical Alliance CEO years previously) was published in the Times declaring that now Trump is out of office he can “more confidently introduce myself, without fear of misunderstanding or connection to US politics: ‘Hi, I’m Gavin, I’m an evangelical Christian.’”  Four years previously, Gav stood on a platform celebrating the 170 years of the Evangelical Alliance, in the week Trump got elected by US evangelicals and remained silent about it.  As did most other UK evangelical leaders.  Many of whom were delighted about the Franklin Graham stadium tour.

Unfortunately, this isn’t how culture works.  Evangelicalism has become a toxic term, because leading evangelicals (and the Evangelical Alliance as a whole) have either supported Trump or remained silent. In the public consciousness (both in the US and the UK), “evangelical” means Trump voter.  And to write an article so long after the horse has bolted, the children have been locked in cages, the pussies have been grabbed and democracy has been so thoroughly attacked (Gav says it was written in November 2020) to educate Times readers on what evangelicalism is really too little, far too late.

Four years on and I no longer feel a need to fight for the label evangelical, its leaders are not my leaders.  They’ve not really been leading much for quite a while now.  It turns out I can simply be a Christian, without clinging to an institution or an identity that thinks it can be rehabilitated without repentance, but simply with a whitewash ushered in by the end of Donald Trump’s presidency.  Lord, have mercy.

Black Livelihoods Matter

As a white person, I have been reluctant to raise my voice in the many conversations about Black Lives Matter.  In my own field, as a Gender Justice Specialist I am confident that well-meaning men coming in with their opinions rarely helps anyone.  So before you read on, if you want some practical ways of making a difference regarding Black Lives Matter, scroll down to the “WHAT CAN YOU DO?” section where I suggest two brilliant women to support.

 

Years ago, I was in a Church home group discussing Jesus’ pronouncements on the rich.  There was a sense in the group of othering the rich as “those people over there”, and I wanted to challenge the group with the idea that as people living in the West, we are The Rich.  What I wanted to say was, “It’s all very well us assuming the rich are someone else, when our status compared to those elsewhere in the world is so much higher; let’s be careful about assuming that Jesus’ words to the rich don’t apply to us.”  But what I actually ended up blurting out was, “Well as we’re all white here…” at which point I looked around and realised that of the six people present, only three of us were white.  I mumbled on for a while, hoping the floor would swallow me up.

 

I’ve been delivering training recently, and within it we do a session on intersectionality.  One of the things I find white people say when we talk about race is, “Well I don’t see colour, I just see people.”  Which is basically the same as me in that church group.  Even though I had been working to address male violence and had a good handle on the reality of power dynamics, I hadn’t noticed the impact of race for people who are not white.  I didn’t even notice the races of the people in my own church group.

 

After I left the church group (by the door, given that the floor would not swallow me) I was ashamed of my ignorance.  I had totally erased many important elements of the lives of those in the group.  Their history and family, the depth and breadth of their identity, and the many challenges they face within a racist society.  Me, with my passion for social justice and commitment to make power dynamics visible, was perpetuating the erasure of power differences IN A CONVERSATION ABOUT POWER DIFFERENCES.  We must be perpetually vigilant to the ways we are blinded to injustice and oppression, even as we commit to being those who challenge injustice.

 

Last week, two Christians announced they were writing a book about “Just Leadership”.  The authors are white men.  I’m sure they think they can do justice to the subject (no pun intended), but the two biggest Western movements for justice in the last few years have been #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.  Academic Robin DiAngelo points out in THIS video that,

“I can live my whole life in segregation, in fact if I followed the trajectory that my loving parents laid out for me, in my good neighbourhood and my good school, and my good college, and my good career, in which I would ideally rise to the top, I could easily never have any consistent, ongoing, authentic relationships with people of colour, and not one person who guided me ever conveyed that there was loss…  [This shows that] there is no inherent value in the perspectives or experiences of people of colour.  If my parents, schools, curriculum, teachers, government saw value in those perspectives, I would be given those perspectives.  But I wasn’t given those perspectives.”

All the people involved in the Just Leadership book; the staff working for the publisher, the authors, and whoever encouraged the authors to put a proposal in, did not see that such a book would be less valuable with only white men writing it.  This isn’t about tokenism or a need to tick the right demographic boxes.  Rather it is recognising that there is great loss in not having the perspectives of black and minoritized people (including women), when we talk about any subject (most particularly on topics related to justice!).

 

Perhaps there may be a temptation for these authors to simply steal the ideas of consult with the nearest black people they know; however as THIS article points out, that is simply tokenism.  It’s not solely about grabbing the nearest person of the right colour or sex and asking their views.  There’s plenty of women who don’t believe misogyny exists; do they have the necessary expertise to address gender inequality?  It’s unlikely.  THIS article suggests another issue with this “consulting” approach; it is exploitative.  As Latasha Morrison says within the article, “It’s not the responsibility of the ordinary Black person to educate white people. That, in itself, is oppressive…”

 

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

We need to do better.  Taking time to read about race and educate ourselves (WITHOUT exploiting the time, labour and energy of black and minoritized people) is one way.  Some books that might be helpful are:

 

But that is not enough, we need to offer financial support to those who are working to bring change.  I would like to invite you to support my dear friends at Next Leadership, who have been working tirelessly for many years within contexts that are both sexist and racist.  Rev Dr Kate Coleman and Rev Cham Kaur-Mann are legends, who need our support and encouragement.  They run leadership programmes and would particularly like to spend more of their time working with those in the black community. However they need money to do that!  If you would be able to support their work, either with a one-off donation or (preferably) give regularly to them, you can do so via bank transfer.  Their bank details are:

 

Lloyds Bank

Account Name:           Next Leadership
Sort code:                     77-85-10
Account no:                  36499668

 

If you could use “BLM” in the reference when you transfer money, they will then know to ringfence the money for their work within the black community.  Also Kate’s book “7 Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership” is excitingly being republished by Zondervan, and you can find out more about it HERE.

Abuse and the Virus

One of the most challenging things about domestic violence is that rarely does the person who is being subjected to abuse realise that they are being abused.  A victim is one of those women, the shrivelled up ones who (according to most stock images) cowering in a corner with a bruised face.  And their partner isn’t one of those men.  He’s a good guy really.  He doesn’t mean it.  It’s only because of all the stress and he had a really bad childhood and he loves me and soon things will get back to how they used to be.  To take the step of acknowledging that our partner is abusive is a huge thing.  Once it’s not “me overreacting”, “his difficult childhood”, “the way I push him to the edge”, “how passionate he is”, “only that one time when he left me bruised”, once we label it ABUSE, everything changes.  Nothing can go on as normal.  We have to take action.  We have to accept that our relationship must end and that our children will lose their father and nothing will ever be the same again.  And that’s before we begin to reckon with all the ways his behaviour will escalate if we try to leave.  Around 80% of men who kill women, do so within eighteen months of her leaving him.

 

Men are more abusive over Christmas.  Often people think it’s because of the stress, the money worries and the increased alcohol consumption.  But that’s not why.  It’s because an abuser deliberately destroys whatever is precious to his partner and children.  He destroys birthday celebrations and anniversaries.  Some abusers destroy every family mealtime, leaving their children with eating disorders because their father (or step father) has thrown food, screamed at their mother, or gone into that silent sulk which they all know ends in him being violent.  The other reason abusers are worse at Christmas is because there is greater opportunity to abuse.  Most people get time off over Christmas, and the abuser will use those extra hours to demand he get whatever he wants.  And because it’s Christmas, his partner will acquiesce, because she wants to make it special for the kids; because where would she go on Christmas Day when he’s kicked the Christmas tree over?  On Christmas Eve he pushes her to do sexual stuff she doesn’t like, but he promises her that if she does what he wants, he’ll make Christmas nice.  So she does what he wants.  Then on Christmas Day she asks him to help with the dinner and he kicks off and blames her for ruining Christmas.  And she just wishes that she’d not asked for help, he was tired after all.

 

You may be wondering why I’m writing about Christmas when we’re dealing with a global pandemic…  It’s because this crisis, and the self-isolation and physical distancing caused by it, creates the similar context as living with an abuser at Christmas, but about a million times worse.

 

He’s now at home 24/7, not just for three days.  He uses his need to work from home to demand that everyone in the home stays silent all day.  If his partner can’t keep their three-year-old silent; he screams, punches walls or makes threats that she’s knows he’ll carry out later.  He’s always hated her speaking on the phone with her friends or family and normally she waits until he’s out of the house to call them, because he’ll tut or huff and puff throughout the phone call.  Now she can’t speak to her anyone.  And then he says he’s started with a temperature and they all need to stay in for fourteen days.  She hasn’t seen any evidence he’s got a temperature, but she daren’t question him as she knows he’ll hurt her, or worse, take out his outrage at her insolence on the kids.

 

And she can’t leave now.  He’s there all the time.  She’d thought about it before, was just waiting for the right time.  But now the kids are off school and don’t have any stability and so she can’t move into a refuge.  And anyway, she’ll be exposing her asthmatic seven-year-old to the virus.  She keeps trying to make everything nice for them all, exhausting herself to make things nice.  He always leads her to believe that she can “make” him nice, if she only plays by his rules.  But then he changes them, or the kids needs something that means she has to break them.  Her job say she can’t have time off as she’s a carer.  But she knows he won’t look after them properly.  He’ll undermine her and play fight with them until they cry and then when she gets home, he’ll keep her up until 4am in the morning interrogating her about which male co-workers she interacted with, accusing her of having an affair.  She says she can’t go into work and her line manager is horrified at her lack of commitment in this crisis and fires her right there and then.  She daren’t cry, because he’ll mock and deride her for it.  She dreads Sunday, when he’ll demand that she and the children participate in the online streamed church service that he’s been planning, the one that was so important all of them had to be silent for three days straight.  Afterwards, he whispers to her that he’s never punched her in the face because people might see it, but now things are different.  She’s his and he’ll do what he wants to her.

 

Specialist domestic abuse services are working around the clock to make their provision effective for women during this epidemic, but due to ideologically driven cuts, they’ve already been stripped back, defunded and de-specialised.  For each of us, there’s not a lot we can do to make a difference while also social distancing and self-isolating.  Abusers are making choices to isolate, control, abuse and harm their partners and children, and the only people who can stop abuse are those who choose to be abusive.  But it’s important that we understand what abuse is, what the dynamics are, and how this virus is going to hugely increase women’s vulnerability.  It’s crucial that we don’t perpetuate myths about abuse; it’s not the stress or financial difficulties caused by the virus that is increasing perpetration, it’s about increased opportunity.  Women who don’t leave abusers are not stupid or wrong; they are doing everything they can to keep themselves and their children safe.  Abusers deliberately act in ways that prevent their partner making sense of what is going on or being able to articulate it as abuse; so doing announcements about “if you’re being abused we can help you” is not really going to reach that many of the people who need support.

 

What can we do as we continue into this unknown place?

 

  1. Contact your local domestic abuse and ask them how you can help; do they need financial support, donations, volunteers to drive/move/clean?
  2. Educate yourself about domestic abuse (my book can help with that).
  3. Be aware that if someone is being abused, their online interactions may be tracked.
  4. Notice who isn’t able to engage with your community; who isn’t on Facebook/Twitter/Whatsapp, and see if there’s a way to check in with them some other way.
  5. Facebook is particularly risky for those who have left an ex-partner, because it is very easy for him to find her. Ensure you have an additional option other than Facebook for engaging with those in your community.
  6. If you hear violence or noise from a neighbour’s home, call the police (use 999 if you are concerned it is an emergency).
  7. Be vigilant. Are there people in your family or friendship group, amongst your colleagues, church community or neighbourhood who are acting differently, whose communications have gone down dramatically or who seem withdrawn or different.  Try to make regular contact with them.
  8. Be aware. When you do your shopping, are there women and children who seem overly subdued, or is there a man behaving in domineering ways (abusive men will be emboldened in a context where they have so much uninterrupted space to abuse, and this may be visible in the brief encounters we have with people).
  9. Trust women. If someone tells you something that sounds abusive, if they talk about feeling suffocated by their partner, if they say they feel scared or need help to leave, believe them straight away.  Whatever they tell you will be the tip of a very horrific iceberg.

 

If you identify with the abusive behaviour detailed in this post, it may have shocked you to become aware that what is being done to you (or what you are doing to someone else) is abusive.

If you are recognising that what is being done to you is wrong and if it is safe to do so, here are some places that can help:

 

If you are concerned about your behaviour towards a partner, you can contact the Respect perpetrator helpline: https://respectphoneline.org.uk (0808 802 4040).

Trauma and the Virus

The world has gone mad and for a little while so did I.

 

Before the virus hit the UK we were in the process of relocating from Essex to the North East.  We were excited that our offer had been accepted on a beautiful house in Sunderland and we had buyers in place for our house.  After ten years living in Essex various factors converged to make moving north seem like a great idea. It would allow us to become mortgage free, it would move us closer to my family and we could live by the sea!

 

It’s less than two years since we lost Smallest GLW.  After a complicated process of my great nephew becoming one of our children for three years, we had been seeking a Special Guardianship Order for him when it was ruled he must be returned to his mum and live four hours away from us.  We’d believed God wanted us to welcome him as one of our own children, and then he was taken away.  It really shook my understanding of who God was.

 

Not long after him leaving us, our family history was brought to the fore.  For those unfamiliar with my story, at 17 I entered a relationship with an abuser.  By 21-years-old, I was living in a hospital after my then husband had assaulted me, causing my son to be born 3 months premature. My toddler daughter and I lived with him in hospital for five months.  It was in this place, when I had lost everything, that I discovered the God who is everything.  I gave my whole life to the God who never promised that things would be easy, but promised to always be with me.

 

My children are now 16 and 14.  It’s complicated when our children become teenagers, because their challenges are still our challenges, but they need us to keep their confidences.  Suffice to say, the last eighteen months has regularly sunk me back into a traumatised place as the reverberations of my ex-husband’s abuse continue to shatter parts of mine and my children’s lives over and again.  Even though he’s had no contact with any of us for over 13 years.

 

Over eleven years ago, God called me to work nationally to address male violence towards women.  At first, I refused.  But God said to me, “If I call you, I’ll resource you.”  And so I embarked on what has become over a decade of challenges, frustrations and a deep, abiding joy as I have developed many and varied projects (you can have a read about some of them at the bottom of this blog).  God has resourced us throughout it all.  There has been the constant challenge of trying to work out what we need to do and what we should leave up to God, and there have been many incredibly generous people who have felt called to support us on our way.

 

As the virus threatens impending doom on civilisation, all I could think about was that it was going to stop us moving house.  I became fixated on needing to get moved.  It took up all my headspace, all my emotional energy.  I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t focus on anything except moving house.  And it made me hate myself.  The whole world is falling apart, people are going to die, everything is going to change.  And all I could think about was Needing To Move House.  I prayed for perspective.  I used the Ignatian Examen to try changing my perspective.  I blasted worship music out while driving, trying to force myself out of the selfishness.  I journaled, went running and cuddled Preston Wooflepuff (click here if you would like to be dazzled by her beautifulness), but nothing changed.  I wanted to be thinking of others and how to be one of the helpers, but instead I was driven mad with the need to move house.  And I hated myself for it.

 

Then, all of a sudden, I realised I was experiencing a traumatic response.  This wasn’t really about the house move.  I hadn’t become obsessively self-involved.  Instead, my body had patterned matched to previous threats.  When I was with my ex-husband I was powerless.  He almost destroyed me and I lived under a constant fear of what he would do, or make me do, next.  And so my body and brain had strategies to keep me feeling safe. These included:

  1. Focussing on the minor issues, make them HUGE, because then I didn’t have to deal with the Actual Issue.
  2. Being on high alert all the time, repeating the problem over and over and over in my head, but never finding a solution.
  3. Denying my powerless while at the same time shutting down any resources to overcome the powerlessness (like creativity, potential solutions, connection to others and God).

 

Realising I had entered a traumatic space changed everything.  I stopped beating myself up and identified my body and brain’s rationale for behaving in the ways it needed to.  Instead of continuing to be alienated from my body’s resources, I began to appreciate my body and brain for providing an (albeit highly problematic) coping strategy.

 

Last year, I finished a theology MA.  In my dissertation I argued that we should view trauma responses as grace-empowered superpowers, rather than problematising them.  That we operate in a world which is “safenormative”.  A world which “others” traumatised people and holds us to the standards of those who have never been subjected to brutality.  That by honouring (without romanticising or glamorising) trauma responses, we enable traumatised people to love the whole of themselves.

 

I began to feel less wrong as I made space for the purpose behind my fixation on moving house; to make a global pandemic feel manageable, to maintain high alert so that I could be kept safe, to deny the powerlessness.  My responses were understandable, they made sense and they were my body trying to keep me safe and alive.

 

I’ve come out of the other side now.  I don’t know whether our house move will go through, but I’m able to accept whatever the outcome is.  I’m facing the reality that our finances were already highly precarious before the virus hit, and now we have no clue what we will live on for the foreseeable future.  We’re on lockdown after Smaller GLW (he’s 14) developed a temperature yesterday and everything feels hugely uncertain.

 

And yet, that God who met me living in a hospital with a premature baby and a traumatised toddler, is with us today.  That God who has always resourced us remains faithful in the midst of all that we face.  And so, having recognised my trauma responses for what they are, I begin the process of working out how God will help us make it through.  And as I do, I’m reminding of Andy Flannagan’s song, “We Are Blessed”. This is not just about God enabling us to make it through, but finding ways to be God’s hands and feet, wherever we find ourselves in this messy and mad world.

 

 

————————

 

These are some of the projects I’ve developed:

 

 

I am self-employed and the main earner in our family (Mr GLW has worked unpaid supporting my work for most of the last decade).  If you feel able to support us at this time, there’s a few ways you can do that:

 

  1. We have a Stewardship Individual Christian Worker account, which means you can give a one-off amount or sign up to give regularly here (and we get Giftaid on it!): https://www.give.net/20220001.
  2. Mr GLW (his real name is Andrew), has begun working as a virtual assistant. He will be charging £20 per hour and has experience in most administrative tasks (book keeping, using Mailchimp, uploading blogs, email management, research, diary management, answering phone calls, data entry, preparing spreadsheets etc).  If you (or anyone you know) could use his skills, please email him andrew@nataliecollins.info.
  3. Buy and read my book (and encourage others to): Out Of Control; Couples, conflict and the capacity for change. If you email me on natalie@nataliecollins.info, I can send you a Paypal link to buy it and then we get a greater amount of the sales.
  4. Pray for us. I know there are so many people and circumstances to pray for at the moment, but if you feel convicted to commit to pray for us, you can sign up for our semi-regular prayer email HERE.

Pray For Helen

Many of you will know my dear friend Helen Austin.  She is amazing!  She’s a specialist in sexual violence, a brilliant activist (she runs the At Your Cervix Twitter account), a wonderful friend and an all-round marvellous human being.  A while ago, I set up a GoFundMe campaign to help raise money for her to get sessions with a specialist trauma therapist after some health problems seriously triggered historical trauma related to being raped by strangers.

 

After years of ill-health (including numerous hospitalisations, wrong diagnoses and death scares) Helen was only recently diagnosed with Hereditary Alpha Tryptasemia Syndrome(which is massively rare).  Helen is the kindest, loveliest woman, and has been on an amazing journey of faith.  Throughout everything that has been done to her and happened to her, she seeks to love God and make a difference in the world.  And I LOVE her.

 

This week, the health problems that triggered Helen’s trauma have been diagnosed as Endometrial Cancer (stage 1).  This is super rare in women of Helen’s age (she’s 35).  She has only just got used to having a serious rare disease and now she’s found out that she has cancer.  It is utterly devastating.  Next Thursday she goes into hospital for a hysterectomy, which is super risky because of her other health problems.  Then, depending on tests, she may also need radiotherapy.

 

There are lots of different kinds of Christians, and some of them (like me) believe that there are spiritual battles to fight.  And with everything that is constantly thrown at Helen, I feel it would be good to dedicate some intentional prayer to battle the ongoing attacks on Helen’s life and wellbeing.  As John 10:10 says, the enemy “comes to steal, kill and destroy”, but Jesus comes that we “may life, and may have it abundantly.”  I know that for non-Christians and other sorts of Christians the idea of fighting a spiritual battle may not be your thing, but for those of you who feel convicted that there may be an ongoing spiritual battle over Helen’s life, I invite you to join me in a day of prayer and fasting for her.

 

Why prayer and fasting?  In Matthew 17:21, Jesus explains that the reason the disciples’ prayers haven’t been effective is because some spiritual battles can only be fought by prayer and fasting.  I’m sure people with much more theological knowledge than me have various explanations for what Jesus meant here, but I’m taking it at face value, and saying that those of us who believe we are called to fight a spiritual battle and are convicted to pray for Helen can join together, wherever we are in the country (or the world) and dedicate a day to fight against all these dreadful things that keep coming against her.  The plan is:

 

DATE: Wednesday 29th January

TIME: When you wake up until 6pm

 

Fast from all food (or if this is dangerous or impossible for you, fast from using your phone or some other important life thing), and take time throughout the day to pray in Jesus’ name against whatever is seeking to harm Helen, asking God to breakthrough, to protect and heal her (including through the medical care she needs).  This can be done around other work/home commitments.

 

Things to pray for…

  • The operation to be successful.
  • Helen’s high risk-ness not to cause problems.
  • All the medical staff involved.
  • Helen’s physical and mental health, and that she will have all the resources she needs (emotional, financial, spiritual, physical).
  • That there will be no need for radiotherapy.
  • That no evil will prosper in Helen’s life and that she will be released in to health, wellness and recovery from physical and mental health stuff.
  • Protection for Helen and all those who are supporting her.
  • Breakthrough, transformation and release.
  • Anything else that occurs to you to pray for.

 

For those who are not into praying in this way, please pray in whatever way works for you.  And if you are not the praying sort, and would like to send Helen a card/gift or other thing, do email me (befreeuk@gmail.com) and I can organise getting it to her.

 

Helen is going to need ongoing trauma therapy, particularly as cancer has somewhat derailed the plan of processing her historical trauma, and if you’d like to financially support the GoFundMe for her therapy sessions, you can do so HERE.

 

THANK YOU!!!

 

 

#SheRises7

To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Rev Dr Kate Coleman’s book 7 Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership, I’m organising a Twitter book group to read through the book, one chapter per week.  Kate’s organisation Next Leadership are encouraging people to run She Rises book groups and so I thought a Twitter Book Group would be a great idea!  

Rather than having to all be online at the same time or anything like that, we’ll have the hashtag #SheRises7.  As we read the book, we can tweet with the hashtag to share any thoughts or ideas.  We can also read through the hashtag and comment on other people’s thoughts.  And we’ll have a chapter hashtag to make clear which chapter we’re discussing (e.g. #int for introduction, #ch1 for chapter 1, #ch2 for chapter 2 and so on).  

About ten women have told me they’re interesting in joining.  Within the next couple of week’s the audiobook will be launched, so anyone who can’t manage reading it can participate using the audio book. 

We’ll start with the Introduction on Monday 14th October, which gives women time to sign up, and also for those on limited budgets to have a bit of time to get the money together to buy it.  If you would like to participate and can’t afford the book, let me know.  If you would like to support women in participating by buying a book for a woman, let me know (especially men who are committed to supporting women’s leadership).  My contact details are at the end of the blog.

This is the #sherises7 book group plan:

WEEK BEGINNING CHAPTER HASHTAG
14th October Introduction #int
21st October Chapter 1 #ch1
28th October Chapter 2 #ch2
4th November Chapter 3 #ch3
11th November Chapter 4 #ch4
18th November Chapter 5 #ch5
25th November Chapter 6 #ch6
2nd December Chapter 7 #ch7
9th December Overall reflections #sherises7

If you’d like to join the book group, feel free to just start tweeting with #SheRises7, and join in with reading the book and tweeting from 14th October.  However, if you’d like to be copied into tweets about the book group, to let you know where we’re up to and stuff, please can you tweet or dm me and I’ll add you to my list. 

To contact me about needing a free book or to offer to buy a book for a woman, you can email on befreeuk (at) gmail (dot) com or direct message me on Twitter @God_loves_women.

No Stand. Just My Story.

Last week Alabama became the seventh US state to enact a ban on most or all abortion.  There are only four women in the 35-seat senate, with 25 white, male senators voting for the law, which will be the strictest in the US. It will outlaw abortion in all circumstances, except “to avoid a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother,” for ectopic pregnancy and if the “unborn child has a lethal anomaly” (this makes it slightly less strict than the Northern Irish law, which does not allow abortion due to foetal abnormality).  A motion to ensure that exceptions be made for rape or incest failed on a vote of 11 – 21. Under this new law, any doctor who performs an abortion will face a prison sentence of up to 99 years. During the debate about passing this law, Democrat Bobby Singleton pointed out that this would mean a doctor performing an abortion on a woman impregnated by a rapist would face a longer prison sentence than the rapist.  The law has not yet come into effect, but the fact it has passed at all reflects a huge shift in how abortion is treated in the US.

 

White evangelical Christians have been at the heart of the pro-life movement.  Donald Trump capitalised on this in his election campaign, and it worked!  Eighty percent of white, self-identified evangelicals voted for him.  Within the UK, evangelical views on abortion are less clear; the Evangelical Alliance’s 21stCentury Evangelicalsreport found that while 49% of evangelicals believed (a lot or a little) that abortion can never be justified; 18% were unsure and 33% believed that there were situations in which abortion could be justified.  Outside of evangelicalism, Christian views on abortion vary widely; with some Christians actively involved in pro-choice activism.

 

As a Christian feminist, and as someone who currently still identifies as an evangelical; I have avoided speaking publicly or writing about abortion. There will be secular feminists and evangelical Christians who would be disappointed about this.  Both would say that my making a stand on my views about abortion are an imperative of both my feminism and my faith.  I remain reluctant to make that stand, mainly because my views are nuanced and conflicted.  Not something that works well within our highly polarised society on an issue where pro-choice and pro-life are such clearly delineated camps. But here I am, not so much making a stand, but rather reluctantly telling my story.

 

Growing up, we had a jar of dead babies in a kitchen cupboard.

 

Yes, you read that right.  Let me explain…

 

After becoming Christians, my parents discovered pro-life activism. They had leaflets filled with photographs of aborted foetuses.  They were instrumental in the opening of a pregnancy crisis centre in our local town; offering pregnancy tests, counselling, baby equipment and more.  Growing up, abortion was a familiar word, though I didn’t know what it meant.  When I was about six, I was playing with a friend (whose mum was also involved in the pro-life movement).  I remember cradling a plastic doll and declaring that “I’m going to have an abortion of this baby.”  My seven-year-old friend look horrified, “You can’t!” she exclaimed.  “That’s putting a baby in a plastic bag and throwing it on a fire.”

 

One time, my parents attended a rally to mourn the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act.  As part of the rally, a paper canon shot out thousands and thousands of small paper circles (like floaty paper communion wafers).  My parents collected a load of them in a jam-jar.  On returning from the rally, they placed the jar in a kitchen cupboard, explaining to us that each paper circle represented a dead baby. And for years, every time we reached into the cupboard to get a tin of beans or tinned tomatoes; there would be the jar of dead babies.  Sitting there.  Getting dusty.

 

Fast forward to my teenage years, where evangelical sex education taught me “don’t do sex until you get married to an opposite sex Christian”.  I loved Jesus and understood that as a teenage girl in the late nineties and early noughties, no naughtiness should ensue. My virginity was proof that I was countercultural.  I would evangelise the nation, or at least my fellow students at my college, with my intact hymen.  Which was all going really well, until I met a dashing young man.  I told him I didn’t believe in sex before marriage, he said that was fine and then proceeded to coerce and manipulate me into sex.  Christian sex education hadn’t prepared me for this; it’s only really in recent years and since the advent of the #metoo movement that evangelical Christian culture has begun to have conversations about consent.  A catholic education devoid of lessons on contraception, a mother who believed what the Daily Mailsaid about the contraceptive pill causing cancer, and an abusive boyfriend who told me that “sex isn’t real unless there’s a risk of pregnancy” led to me becoming pregnant at 17.

 

Reproductive coercion is not a term many people are familiar with, however recent research has found that 1 in 7 UK womenhave been forced into pregnancy or abortion by a man.  The methods of forcing someone into pregnancy range from subtle to brutal; pricking holes in condoms, lying about having had a vasectomy or a low sperm count, interfering with contraception, surreptitiously removing the condom before ejaculating in a woman (some men see this as a challenge and call it “stealthing”), rape (including sex with someone while they are intoxicated or asleep). There’s been this long-term myth that women and girls “get themselves pregnant” to trap a man.  Do you know who is trapped by pregnancy?  The pregnant girl or woman.  That’s who.

 

In 2018, Mormon blogger Gabrielle Blair wrotethat, “all unwanted pregnancies are caused by the irresponsible ejaculations of men. All of them.”  She went on to challenge men’s reluctance to use condoms, “Why would men want to have sex without a condom? Because, for the precious minutes when they’re penetrating their partner, not wearing a condom gives them more pleasure. So… that would mean some men are willing to risk getting a woman pregnant — which means literally risking her life, her health, her social status, her relationships, and her career — so they can experience a few minutes of slightly increased pleasure.”

 

My parents had tried to prevent me having sex, but when I told them I was pregnant they were positive, “We tried to stop it getting here, but now there’s a baby involved that’s something we should be positive about.” The irresponsible ejaculator (my abusive boyfriend) and his family tried to force me to have an abortion.  I refused.  I had my daughter in 2003, when I was eighteen.

 

In 2014, the Guardian featured Young Motherhoodby Jendella.  I was part of the project, and my photograph and some of my story was shown under the headline “We’re glad we chose to be mothers in our teens”.  I was really disturbed by the headline.  I hadn’t chosen to be a mother in my teen.  I had it inflicted on me.  I was ready to ring the Guardian and insist on them changing the headline.  Then it dawned on me.  I had chosen to be a mother in my teens because I had chosen not to have an abortion.  In that moment, something shifted in me.  I hadn’t solely been a victim of reproductive coercion. I had made a choice, I had chosen motherhood!  But I was only able to choose motherhood because I live in a place where abortion is not illegal.

 

When people talk about rape and abortion it often fills me with either rage or dis-ease.  The men who ignore the horror of rape, the trauma of reproductive coercion and the complexity of raising a child in such circumstances will never have to deal with that reality.  Yet, those who exclaim that of course a woman who has been raped should have an abortion do not know how hurtful that can be for those of us who have made different choices.  However, this has to be about choices, not forcing women to have children.  When people suggest that having a child in less-than-ideal-circumstances will destroy a woman’s life, I am proof that does not have to be the case.  Yet, when someone offers blanket statements that abortion is always wrong, I want them to be kept awake at night by the names of women who have died after desperately trying to salvage their life through an illegal abortion.

 

Abortion is a moral minefield because human beings were created interconnected.  No person is an island; a new human is created through a woman and man joining together, with the potential new human sustained in the body of the woman.  And in a sinless, perfect world; new life creation would never be tainted by violence, poverty, inequality, fathers raping their daughters, teenage girls not taught about consent, irresponsible ejaculation or other harmful and damaging realities.  But we do not live in a sinless world, and so many women and girls are scarred inside and out because of that.

 

I remain conflicted.  It is because of my ragingly pro-life parents that I was able to resist an abuser and refuse to have an abortion.  It is because I live in a country where abortion is legal that I was able to choose to be a mother, and that I can tell my children that they were wanted and chosen.  My life shows that being pregnant as a teenager after a male had sexually abused me and subjected me to reproductive coercion, in a context of poverty, did not mean that I should have had an abortion.  That after everything, life can be beautiful and I am achieving my potential.  However, other women’s lives show that having no access to abortion was a death sentence for them and a horrifying reality when they were forced to have children.  I don’t know what the answers are, but I do know that many pro-life people (particularly men) do little more than make uninformed, uncompassionate pronouncements and many pro-choice people view crisis pregnancy in ways that are both hurtful and not representative of mine and some other women’s experiences.  I don’t have any answers.  I’m not here to make a stand. I’m just here to tell my story.