All posts by Susan Thistlethwaite

About Susan Thistlethwaite

I am President Emerita and Professor Emerita of Chicago Theological Seminary; I write for the public here and in local papers. I am interested in what I call "public theology," or how deeper meaning is made and contested in the public square.

Shaming and Blaming: Rape Denial as Religious Crisis

The comments on my Huffington Post piece, “Bill Cosby: Rape, Gender, and Serial Rape Denial”  have not been as bad as I expected.

Of course, I expected very little in the way of affirmation of my argument. But still…

Is there a shift going on? I wonder. Yes, there are the ‘we need to see concrete evidence’ type of soft denials, but there is less women-blaming than I imagined there would be. Of course, after 42 women have gone public with accusations against Bill Cosby for sexual assault over many years, the ‘they’re making it all up’ defenders of Cosby have little ground to stand on.

But if we really want to stop serial rape, it is absolutely critical to increasingly keep the attention on the alleged offender. The Cosby accusations bear a marked resemblance to the statistics on how many campus rapes are committed by serial rapists, as I note in an earlier Huffington Post piece, “The Hunting Ground: Stop Victim Blaming and End Campus Rape.”

The comments on The Christian Left were characteristically thoughtful and compassionate. I engaged a discussion about betrayal and trust.

There is a deep religious issue at stake in victim blaming and shaming. It is a profound betrayal of women as human beings, and it often precipitates a religious crisis for them.

I believe the two most basic religious questions are: “What can I trust?” and “Am I alone?” The immoral failure of our society is that women, as is especially clear in the case of acquaintance rape, find they cannot trust someone they thought they knew, and then they find they are not trusted when they try to report and they are often isolated and left alone. They are shamed and blamed for the violence committed against them.

The religious crisis, however, should be when many people of faith and people of humanist values do not believe women when they report rape, and when they are shamed and blamed, and asked to justify trying to report a crime.

Why is the attention not focused, to a great extent, on the alleged rapist?  Who gets the ‘benefit of the doubt,’ and who is disbelieved?

We have to ask ourselves this hard question: why are so many women still left alone in their pain and grief?

Now that’s a religious crisis.

Suppose apartheid is not past, but future?

As John De Gruchy, who studied at Chicago Theological Seminary, bluntly put it for Christians in South Africa, Apartheid is a Heresy.

It is telling that the  Facebook page of alleged Charleston shooter Dylann Roof shows him wearing insignia that signals support for apartheid in South Africa.

Could Apartheid be a heresy gaining ground in the United States? Yes, I fear so.

Looking at this photo, I asked myself: taken as a whole, what do the recent series of murders of unarmed African Americans and increased racialized violence portend? To me, it is beginning to suggest that while people of conscience regard racial apartheid as part of a hateful, but bygone era, there are an increasing number who may think apartheid is a desirable American future. And combined with a society awash in guns, and prone to excuse abusing or killing African Americans, this future is actually more of a threat than perhaps many might imagine.

President Obama and sensitive journalists (not you, FOX News), have been quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words delivered after the deaths of four young girls in a Birmingham, Alabama church. King prophetically asks us to focus “not merely those who murdered them, but the system, the way of life, the philosophy that produced the murderers.”

Apartheid is one name for that system, that way of life, that philosophy.

South African Apartheid did not drop from the sky. While racial segregation began in colonial times in South Africa, it was not until 1948, in post-WWII economic turmoil, that the legalized racial segregation and deprivation of the rights of the majority African population were put in place.

Economic turmoil in the U.S., and the continued deterioration of economic opportunity, combined with increasing racial diversity are engines of the increase in white supremacist organizations and violent actions. The election of an African American president greatly accelerated this hateful and dangerous trajectory.

South Carolina is home to 19 known hate groups — including two factions of the Ku Klux Klan and four “white nationalist” organizations, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

If these groups, and those they influence, have their way, apartheid could be an American future.

If we do not want to see this future, it is absolutely critical to denounce white supremacy in the U.S. for the heresy it is.




Broken earth, broken humanity

This morning I published a new Huffington Post piece, Sister Earth cries out”: Did Pope Francis just proclaim an eco-feminist theology? on Pope Francis’s new encyclical on the environment.  While I celebrated the Pope’s explicit rejection of “dominion” over the earth as a theological license to exploit,  I also added “the encyclical also illustrates how incredibly deep dominionism runs in Western religion and culture,” and that the Pope had not gone nearly far enough in rejecting all the hierarchies in Christian theology that have been promoted and sustained through that pernicious interpretation of Genesis.

Dominion posits a hierarchy in creation that has justified, even provoked, hatred and violence as is so evident in the racist hate crime just perpetrated in South Carolina. “We woke up today and the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken,” Gov. Nikki Haley (R) said in news conference.

I could not help but reflect on how the breaking of the soul of community and the breaking of the earth are so deeply intertwined.

And even in strong efforts, like the Pope’s new encyclical, the most profound connections are yet still not made, and the theologies that support them still not fully rejected.




Sexual Assault and Abuse: What part of “Peacekeeping” does the U.N. not understand?

Members of the UN-African Union mission in Darfur (UNAMID) patrol the area near the city of Nyala in Sudan’s Darfur

You would be justified in thinking that committing gender based violence and assault of children would not be part of “peacekeeping,” and yet, as has been documented again and again, it is. Gender violence and sexual exploitation are a problem hidden in plain sight in peacekeeping, as this article on the U.N. ignoring sexual abuse of children by French troops in Africa shows.

Sexual abuse and exploitation by United Nations “peacekeepers” has been known to be a problem for decades, it remains a problem, with little support available for victims, and now for the children “peacekeepers” have fathered, according to a new Time article.

It is staggering how long this has been known, and yet ignored or suppressed and not stopped. The important 1996 UNICEF study, The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, reported that “In 6 out of 12 country studies, the arrival of peacekeeping troops has been associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution.” A review eight years later concluded that prostitution and sexual abuse followed most UN interventions.

“Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights” is one of the ten “Just Peace practices” that are foundational to the Just Peace paradigm first developed in the 1990’s by a diverse group of Christian leaders, refined post 9/11 and then expanded in an interfaith context since 2012.

Clearly stopping this abuse by U.N. peacekeepers must be part of any Just Peace practice that takes gender and sexual violence as a peace imperative, as I argue in Women’s Bodies as Battlefield: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women.

And, as with so many issues of gender violence and sexual exploitation, it is crucial to focus on structural issues of power and their connection to abuse.

There is an overarching issue with the U.N. and power that should be named. The United Nations and its workers are often critiqued for assuming a paternalistic ‘we’re here to help you’ mentality. As Nobel Peace Prize winner Lehmah Gbowee  succinctly says in her book, Mighty Be Our Powers, the “U.N. reps do not listen to the local people, and many disasters that could have been avoided.” This is a commonly heard critique.

This contributes to the failure to attend to complaints of sexual violence and abuse against peacekeeper troops by local people.

But even when such complaints are made, the U.N. does not have its own peacekeeping “army.” It relies on members to contribute troops, and following up on claims of sexual misconduct by troops, and now, the DNA testing to prove whether child support claims can be made against one of the peacekeepers, must be done through the host country. When a lot of this alleged “misconduct” is criminal (almost half of the paternity claims reported since January 2010 — 14 out of 29 — were made by minors who said they’ had been sexually abused), the U.N. becomes “nervous about angering member states amid a persistent need for peacekeepers.”

It is clearly imperative to address the poverty of those children fathered and then abandoned by peacekeepers, but that is only one part of this many-faceted problem. Those children born to women (and sometimes girls) are living in poverty with their mothers because they, mothers and children, are often ostracized by their communities. And what of those women and children who have been sexually exploited who are not in this group? Not all the sexually abused have born children.

Ban Ki-moon has suggested creating a U.N. fund “to help support children left behind, especially in cases where countries fail to act on paternity claims.” But this idea does not go nearly far enough.

The U.N. needs to create such a fund in order to provide support, including options for therapy as well as education and economic opportunity, for all those sexually abused and exploited by peacekeepers. Otherwise, the U.N. is furthering the idea that impregnation is the main problem. It is not. Sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeeping troops are the main problem.

it has been very important that the United Nations adopted The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, defining violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

And now the United Nations needs to act on its own words. The U.N. should create a comprehensive global fund to actually deal with the violence against women and children that has been done by their peacekeepers.

In addition,  training for all U.N. troops needs to include prohibitions on sexual assault and abuse, as well as mandatory reporting mechanisms.

And this needs to be done now.

Photograph: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

God’s Batterers: When Religion Subordinates Women, Violence Follows



At the Carter Center Human Rights Defenders Forum, “Beyond Violence: Women Leading for Peaceful Societies,” February 9-12 2015, this article on “God’s Batterers” that I had originally published at the Washington Post On Faith section was distributed. In our discussions at this international meeting, many attendees noted how deep the connections are among the subordination of women in religion and the incidence of violence of women.

“Wives should submit to their husbands in everything,” writes Paul to the Ephesians about how they should order their domestic lives. Mary Slessor, 19th century Scottish missionary and early feminist wrote in her Bible next to this text, “Nay, nay, Paul laddie. This will na do.” Mary Slessor was right. Religious women need to challenge such religious justifications of domestic violence. Their lives can depend on it.

The primary connection between religion and domestic violence is religiously sanctioned subordination of women. Submission itself is institutionalized violence — a structure of unequal power that puts women in a vulnerable position in the home. The front door of such a “religious” home becomes a doorway to violence.

Mary Potter Engel, a Christian theologian and novelist, has called this the “Just Battering” tradition. She models her analysis of the Christian justification of violence against wives on the Just War tradition. Just War principles start with “Right Authority.” In the “Christian home,” ideologies of “submission” mean that only the husband has authority. This makes physical abuse of women “just” in the same way that political authorities can claim a war is “just” if it is authorized by them. (See Kay Marshall Strom, In the Name of Submission: A Painful Look at Wife Battering.)

Evangelical Christian ministries such as those run by Rev. Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church or James Dobson of Focus on the Family all stress “submission” as the Christian family role for wives. At the same time, these Christian evangelical ministries staunchly deny that submission is a cause of violence against wives.

Jesus gets invoked a lot to justify wife battering, especially as a model for suffering.
Some evangelicals strongly disagree and have explicitly charged that it is submission that is responsible for wife battering in the “Christian” home. James and Phyllis Alsdurf, in Battered Into Submission: The Tragedy of Wife Abuse in the Christian Home, have noted that conservative Christian women can’t even get help because of this religious ideology of submission.

“When she [the battered wife] musters up the courage to go public with ‘her’ problem (very likely to her pastor or a church member), what little human dignity she has retained can soon be ‘trampled underfoot’ with comments like: ‘What have you done to provoke him?’ ‘Well, you’ve got to understand that your husband is under a lot of pressure right now,’ or ‘How would Jesus want you to act: just submit and it won’t happen again.’”

In fact, Jesus gets invoked a lot to justify wife battering, especially as a model for suffering. In an article for Time magazine I did when Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ was first released, I noted the direct connection between an overemphasis on suffering as “saving” people and what women have told me for years about how their priests or ministers advise them to stay in a violent home.

“Countless women have told me that their priest or minister had advised them, as ‘good Christian women’ to accept beatings by their husbands as ‘Christ accepted the cross.’ An overemphasis on the suffering of Jesus to the exclusion of his teaching has tended to be used to support violence,” I wrote in the April 12, 2004 issue.

I know of no religious traditions that are entirely free of ideologies that support women’s inferiority and justify their subordination.

As the Chicago Tribune has reported, there is an epidemic of teen “date battering.” I have counseled young women involved in date-battering relationships. In one case, members of a conservative “Christian” youth group to which she belonged were encouraging this teenage girl to stay with the battering boyfriend in order to “convert him to Christ” by her model of “perfect submission and love.” It took a lot of support and a very different religious interpretation to help her make better life choices.

Christian sanction for domestic violence is deeply rooted in our religious tradition. A tremendous amount of work has been done in recent years to question these perspectives. We must continue to offer biblical and theological critiques of the “Just Battering” tradition, the idolatry of suffering and other such views. And we must continue to provide alternatives. A lot more remains to be done, not only in Christianity but also across the religious spectrum, including Islam and Judaism as well as Buddhism and Hinduism and others. Indeed, I know of no religious traditions that are entirely free of ideologies that support women’s inferiority and justify their subordination.

This is a sad commentary on the role religion sometimes plays in human life. It does not have to be this way. We have put up with violence in the “religious” home for far too long. The truth is, “batterers” aren’t serving God, they are serving themselves and it’s sin, plain and simple.