Emily Gathergood writes: The tragic news of the kidnap and murder of 33-year old Sarah Everard as she walked to her home in South London’s Brixton Hill recently, apparently by a serving Metropolitan Police officer, has triggered a national outpouring grief and sadness, as well as a surge of public outrage at the ubiquitous problem of male violence against girls and women. Vigils held in Sarah’s memory at Clapham Common and numerous cities across the country have served as poignant spaces for hundreds of women to voice a broader lament and protest over the endemic social evil of gender-based violence—sexual harassment, sexual violence, domestic violence, ‘honour’-based violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and trafficking as well as femicide. The manhandling of several women activists in an ill-judged, disproportionate crackdown by the Met amplified the disturbing case in point: women do not feel safe on our streets, even from the institutions meant to protect them.
The outcry is intuitively intersectional, recognising that while male violence is experienced by girls and women from all backgrounds, certain social groups are disproportionately affected. Pointed anger over media inattention to the stories of Dawn Bennett, Bibba Henry, Nicole Smallman, Blessing Olusegun, and other black and ethnic minority women recently murdered reflects longstanding frustration with structural racism in British society and a growing political will to address the convergence of gender- and race-based violence. Disability rights campaigners call attention to disability as a major compounding risk factor: women with mental or physical impairments, or mental health conditions, are four times more likely to be assaulted. And poverty action groups highlight poverty as another exacerbator: women in low-income households are 3.5 times more likely to be victims of domestic violence. This renewed focus in public discourse on the prioritising of allgirls’ and women’s safety is certainly welcome.
There is, however, a collective rolling of mascaraed eyes when the headline statistics which so clearly lay out the pervasive nature the issue are met with shock or incredulity. Are you surprised that in the UK, according to the latest Femicide Census, a woman is killed by a man every three days? That the World Health Organisation reports 1 in 5 (22%) women experience physical and/or sexual violence? That a YouGov survey conducted for the All-Party Parliamentary Group for United Nations Women UK found 7 in 10 (71%) women of all ages experience sexual harassment, rising to almost all (97%) young women aged 18–24?
Women have always known this to be the status quo, from personal incidents and from the collective whisper network of torrid anecdotes sorrowfully shared. The slow rate of progress despite decades of gender activism indicates the intractable nature of the problem, and breeds frustration and resentment. It’s 2021, and we women are still looking over our shoulders, talking the well-lit route, carrying rape alarms, tightly clutching our keys, texting when we’re home, and making all manner of adjustments to our daily lives because we are afraid of being attacked by men.
Are we being unreasonable to feel this way, when it’s quite true that ‘not all men’ are aggressors? As Tom Chivers points out in his psychological analysis of ‘Why don’t women feel safe?’, the law of large numbers means that ‘even if only a tiny fraction of men are dangerous or threatening, women will occasionally encounter them.’ Even if ‘not very many men’ are predatory, there are enough to make women feel threatened, especially given the difficulty of discerning which men are the wolves in sheep’s clothing. It’s not all men, but it could be any man. Each woman has her own level of threat perception, and it’s not clear that there’s an optimal level of risk aversion or a correct amount to be worried. Ultimately, the question ‘Is women’s fear of assault rational?’ is invalidating and betrays the typically defensive dynamic of the present reckoning in which male privilege is challenged and men held accountable for the broader culture of misogyny from which they benefit.
If the statistics induce discomfort—and they should—how much more so the personal testimonies of survivors of male violence. The burgeoning #MeToo movement on social media platforms and beyond has empowered millions of girls and women through empathy and solidarity to courageously speak out about their experiences of sexual harassment and abuse. For those who have ears to hear, the collective voice of exploited and violated female bodies demands a conversation about gender and power. And the prevalence of #ChurchToo and #SilenceIsNotSpiritual stories of the sexual violation of women and children in Christian communities, largely by those in positions of authority, demands a conversation about the dynamics of gender and power particular to Christian subcultures. Why is it that some ‘Christian’ men are perpetrators of abuse? For those with eyes to see, a spotlight is shining on the destructive aspects of Christian celebrity culture, purity culture, shame culture, and complementarianism (a doctrine of female submission). Acknowledging the tragic reality before us that girls and women in the world and in the church are frequently confronted with the fear and the fact of male violence is a difficult but necessary prerequisite to responding constructively.
It raises so many hard questions, including: How might the anxious, the harassed, the assaulted and the abused navigate a way through the psychological and physical trauma carried in their bodies? How might we love survivors through this journey and be instruments of healing and justice? How might we dismantle the underlying systems of thought and material conditions which lead to the oppression, objectification and dehumanisation of girls and women? How might survivors come to experience the redemptive grace of God? Such questions are weighty, and there are no facile or definitive answers. We must sit with them and process them together.
With the aim of facilitating further reflection and dialogue, I would like to offer here a very brief theological conceptualisation of violence against girls and women, from faith for faith, from survivor for survivor. Drawing on some resources of those who have done so before us, as well as the developing social-scientific field of expertise in traumatology, I offer some material to think with: a sketch of a redescription of the age-old/present crisis of gender-based violence in light of the gospel.
The gospel of ‘Him too’
Recent decades have seen the development of a trauma-sensitive biblical hermeneutic, that is, an interpretative method in which the Bible is approached through the lens of trauma, and the relationship between trauma and grace, or violence and redemption, is explored. This bringing together of contemporary and biblical trauma narratives generates a perspective which is distinctively empathic and theopathic. As Rev Dr Serene Jones sets out in her paradigmatic book Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, the method brings to the fore two fundamental biblical truth claims:
First, we live in a world profoundly broken by violence and marred by harms we inflict upon each other. Second, God loves this world and desires that suffering be met by hope, love, and grace.
These truths meet wherever God acts redemptively in human history, and most especially at the cross of Christ.
First, then, we notice that the biblical narratives do not shy away from displaying the harsh realities of contingent, embodied life in this fallen world. The horrendous accounts they contain of women who were marginalised, beaten, trafficked, enslaved, raped, murdered and dismembered speak to us realistically of a common plight of vulnerability to the exploitation of our bodies, and a common yearning for a better, safer existence. We see the suffering of Hagar (Gen. 16), Dinah (Gen. 34), Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11), Tamar (2 Sam. 13), the Levite’s concubine (Judg. 19–20), and many other unnamed sisters, and we find that their ancient stories live on in us and among us, and all is not well. The desperate plea of Tamar, ‘Don’t force me! Don’t do this wicked thing!’ echoes through the generations and articulates the longstanding predicament of women’s powerlessness.
Secondly, we find that God hears the human cries for justice, solidarity, and healing, and replies with an abundance of righteousness, love and grace. The Law, the Prophets and the Writings reveal an especial divine concern for the punishment of evildoers, the protection of the weak, the liberation of the oppressed, and the care of the bruised and broken-hearted, even if these ideals are not consistently realised in the community of faith. And the gospel reveals a God who supremely responds to our greatest needs by becoming human in the Incarnation—the giving of Godself for us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus—which holds out the promise of our own eternal spiritual, emotional and bodily renewal through union with him.
In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul draws on an early Christ-hymn (2:6–11) which contemplates the posture of Christ Jesus:
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
The hymn probes the remarkable voluntary humiliation through which the great ‘I AM’ was embodied and became a ‘me too’ victim through the tortures of crucifixion, thereby identifying himself with those of us who suffer as victims of hate and violence. As Dr Erin Heim has laid out in her autobiographical paper, ‘Resurrection and the #metoo movement‘, an often overlooked aspect of Jesus’ suffering is his subjection to a form of sexual violence. ‘They stripped him’ (Matt. 27:28), which was a public act of sexual humiliation, a #metoo moment through which he empathises with fellow survivors of sexual violence. Our communal remembering of the crucifixion with Jesus’ words ‘This is my body, which is for you’ (1 Cor. 11:24) thus rightly includes his experience of sexual abuse.
In Jesus’ shamed and tormented body, in the midst of violence, yes even sexual violence, the love of God is present to us. And in Jesus’ resurrected body, which is an eternally vindicated and healed and glorified body, the grace of God offers hope for the restoration of our own traumatised bodies. Paul assures us, those who by faith have been united with him in a death like his can certainly expect to be united with him in a resurrection like his (Rom. 6:5). A Christocentric perspective on violence against women therefore brings together the realities of our victimhood, Jesus’ victimhood, and his victory over evil and death, which is also ours.
What the gospel of ‘Him too’ means for me, as my mind and body keep the score of my own experience ov sexual abuse in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, is the loving presence of God with me in the nightmare. Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit, Christ when I stand, Christ when I break. Christ in me, the hope of glory. It’s a consolation strong against despair. And it compels me to ask my Christian brothers and sisters, Do you love me, too? Because to belong to the Body of Christ is to feel the pain of his members as one’s own. To weep with those who weep, and rage with those who rage. To tend the wounds of those who are battered, and dismantle every oppressive notion and structure and practice.
Will you be instruments of grace in the Redeemer’s hands? Or will you be stumbling-blocks in the holy path to justice, liberation and healing?
Emily Gathergood is a PhD candidate in New Testament at the University of Nottingham, researching women in early Jewish and Christian texts and artifacts. Emily worships at Cornerstone Church, Nottingham, with her husband John and two children. Emily enjoys being a musician, creative, and forrager of wild food. You can follow her on Twitter @emilygathergood
The image at the head is a section from The Flagellation of Our Lord Jesus Christ by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825–1905)