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How scripture bears witness to violence against women

15 October 2021

Care should be taken when applying biblical passages to contemporary cases, write Rebecca Aechtner and Anderson Jeremiah


People gather at Clapham Common, in March, to leave flowers and tributes for Sarah Everard

People gather at Clapham Common, in March, to leave flowers and tributes for Sarah Everard

THE GUARDIAN recently reported that, in the 28 weeks since the death of Sarah Everard, “at least 81 other UK women have been killed in circumstances where the suspect is a man.” This is utterly horrifying.

The murder of Ms Everard, and that of the primary-school teacher Sabina Nessa last month, have shocked and outraged the nation, demanding questions about how such violence can be perpetrated by those who are supposed to protect us.

On Thought for the Day, on 1 October, the Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, spurred further reflection on how we use biblical texts to make sense of Ms Everard’s horrendous murder: one of too many cases that expose violence against women.

Bishop North compared the rape and murder of Ms Everard at the hands of the Metropolitan Police Officer Wayne Couzens to King David’s abuse of power in murdering Uriah. Although Bishop North connected David’s egregious betrayal of trust to Ms Everard’s murder, the reflection stopped short of recognising the deep-rooted patriarchal privilege that is itself often the cause of violence against women.

THE brutal attacks on Ms Everard, Ms Nessa, and countless other women have left many questioning women’s safety and why more is not being done. Ms Everard’s attacker was active in a social-media group that explicitly shared misogynistic and racist views, which goes to show the pervasiveness of the problem. We in the Church need to name the evil of patriarchy and misogyny, no matter where it is found, in the Church or government, and challenge all areas where women are demeaned with threats of violence.

Scripture often gives us the language and imagery with which to make sense of our experiences. Caution should be taken, however, when alluding to a particular biblical narrative in reflecting on current events as harrowing and emotive as these violent murders. Comparing the death of Ms Evarard to that of Uriah the soldier on the battlefield robs the fundamental agency of women victims, even in death. She was simply walking home from a friend’s house, unlike Uriah, who was returning home from war.

There are plenty of biblical stories that expose the violent deaths of women, especially at the hands of Patriarchs, the so called “Texts of Terror” (Phyllis Trible). Why not use one of these often-overlooked uncomfortable passages to shed light on the institutional nature of gendered violence in our religious communities?

For example, in the book of Judges, Jephthah sacrifices his daughter as a burnt offering in exchange for God’s aid in battle. This is one of many horrific acts against innocent women to which scripture bears witness. But, in this instance, the women of Israel engage in a remarkable act of public grief, decrying the injustice faced by one of their own. This gave rise to a new custom that, for four days every year, the daughters of Israel would go out and lament the daughter of Jephthah (Judges 11. 39-40).

In her book Inspired (Nelson Books, 2018), Rachel Held Evans wrote: “While the men moved on to fight another battle, the women stopped to acknowledge that something terrible had happened here, and with what little social and political power they had, they protested — every year for four days. They refused to let the nation forget what it had done in God’s name.”

We should also question how David has become the “go-to guy” for many male leaders in the Church. King David abuses his God-given power and authority to satisfy his own lust, and, in the process, takes the life of his subordinate. But, while David repents of his sexual sin and violent acts, the physical and social harm remains. Despite God’s fury, expressed through the prophet Nathan, David remains King David, and retains his position of power. The Church needs to question the overarching patriarchal worldview that allows the stubborn persistence of male privilege at the expense of those under their authority.

AS WE mourn the death of innocent women, we must examine the patriarchal and misogynist world-views that remain unchallenged and even tolerated. We, the Church, need to confess our sin collectively and repent of our failure to recognise the broken and violated body of Jesus Christ in each and every victim. Let us turn to scripture to mourn together, so that we can reclaim Christ’s healing and reconciling love given through his murder and resurrection.

May the poem “Texts of Terror” by the theologian Nicola Slee spur us to face the brutality of violence against women, so that, as a Church, we can provide spaces for people to mourn, seek justice, and work towards safer streets for our daughters, sisters, and mothers.

Until there is not one last woman remaining

who is a victim of violence.

We will listen and we will remember.
we will rehearse the stories and we will renounce them.
[. . . ]
Listen then, in sorrow.
Listen in anger, Listen to the texts of terror.
And let us commit ourselves to working for a world
in which such deeds may never happen again.

You can read the full poem “Texts of Terror” by Nicola Slee in Praying Like a Woman (SPCK).

The Revd Dr Rebecca Aechtner is Vicar of St Paul’s, Scotforth, in the diocese of Blackburn. The Revd Dr Anderson Jeremiah
is Canon Theologian of Blackburn Cathedral and a senior lecturer in the Department of Politics, Philosophy, and Religion at Lancaster University, and has just been re-elected to the General Synod.

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