Rosie Dawson, Associate Research Fellow at the William Temple Foundation, prompts us to recognise the invisible victims of abuse.
There were numerous jaw-dropping moments during the Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) hearings last week. An extract from the evidence given by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey was relayed on Radio 4’s news bulletins. He explained that he had accepted Bishop Peter Ball’s protestations of innocence because he could not believe that a bishop in the church of God could do such evil things. But it was Lord Carey’s attitude to the victims that stopped me in my tracks. “I didn’t know these people,” he said. “These people” were outside of his normal range of contact and therefore, it seems, not to be taken seriously.
It is testimony to the staying power of the survivors, their supporters, and a couple of dogged journalists (including the BBC’s Donna Birrell and Colin Campbell) that some of these stories of abuse are finally being heard. Along with stories of the ways in which many in the religious establishment closed ranks to protect themselves.
Hidden in the pages of the Bible – among tales of the powerful leaders and religious heroes of the Establishment – are many victims of sexual abuse. We will never know their names and in some cases their stories are presented as collateral damage. The Book of Judges records how the unmarried women of Jabez Gilead were kidnapped and trafficked to a camp in Shiloh. You would hope that any modern commentator might find a more accurate headline than the biblical sub-editor’s “Wives for the Benjamanites,” but after the spin put on events this week at IICSA I would not be too sure.
If we read these Biblical passages at all, we may still be desensitised to their horror by their antiquity or their inclusion in Holy writ. I was appalled by the abduction and forced marriage of the Nigerian girls of Chibok by Boko Haram, but I was still reading the story in the Book of Esther as a story about an un-PC beauty contest rather than another account of sexual trafficking.
The Shiloh Project at Sheffield University’s Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies analyses the contemporary ways in which these texts are interpreted. Sometimes the texts are ambiguous and afford more than one possible interpretation. The Biblical writers depict David as an adulterer for sleeping with Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan, sent by God to call the King to account, names his sin as theft, the taking of another man’s property. Artists down the ages have depicted Bathsheba as a seductress. But read between the lines and you might conclude instead that Bathsheba was raped. With other passages it is less about reading between the lines and more about simply noticing them. One line or verse can be easily overlooked within a larger narrative. Take verse seven from the Song of Songs chapter five, in which the female narrator, while proclaiming her desire for her lover, also tells of how she was beaten, shamed and possibly worse by the watchmen of the walls as she searched for him.
Rev Dr Helen Paynter from the Centre for Bible and Violence at Bristol Baptist College teaches the importance of an ethical reading of these passages. Just as someone who hears a disclosure about sexual abuse has a responsibility to act upon it, so the reader of these stories must decide on their response. Neutrality is not an option. Helen asks the reader to interrogate the text, to ask who is telling the story and why, whose voice is heard and whose is silent? Is there a reading of the story – however terrible – that can empower victims of abuse? Work of this kind has long been going on with survivors in some parts of the world. For example, activists and theologians in several African countries have been reading the story of Tamar in such a way as to challenge the church and religious authorities to confront sexual violence. Tamar’s story is told in 2 Samuel 13. It is the one place in the Bible where a rape victim is heard to protest against what is being done to her.
Increasingly UK churches and Christian organisations designate a particular Sunday of the year to focus on issues of social justice. There is Homelessness Sunday and Racial Justice Sunday. A Sexual Justice Sunday could only ever form a very small part of the response that is needed to address the issues highlighted by the IICSA hearings. But perhaps it could have a role in enabling a wider Christian public to engage with these “texts of terror” alongside the experience of survivors of abuse within and outside the churches; “these people” whose voices have been silent or silenced and whose stories have been passed over by the need of the Establishment to control the narrative.
I recently came across a woman struggling to resource a small Christian charity in Derbyshire which helps people come to terms with their experiences of abuse. She sometimes reads the story of Tamar with them. It can take them weeks to discuss it, she says. If anyone from the Church would like to contact me with a view to supporting work like this I would be happy to put them in touch.
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