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Body Politics

Is Christian Political Theology too conservative to undermine sexual violence?

If we want to focus on stopping sexual violence we need to ask much more disruptive questions about the conserving influence within Christian political theologies that accompanies their radical critiques.

When I think about what is needed to stop sexual violence I am not sure that I trust Christian political theology as a helpful resource for doing so. Yes, I include liberationist, decolonial, feminist, womanist, and queer expressions of Christian political theology within the parameters of this uncertainty. In fact these iconoclastic approaches to traditional arrangements of power in church and society matter most to me in the inchoate, somewhat mutinous reflections I offer here. These radical Christian perspectives, along with most other contemporary Christian political theology, conserve Christian traditions even as they launch critiques of the internal politics of those traditions and their outward impact on communal life. Radical theological critiques can play an especially needful, trenchant role in the conceptualization of shared, moral communal life where Christian moral influence dominates the wider culture. But a lack of urgency about the harmfulness of sexual violence remains, at best, unmitigated, and, at worst, forcefully suppressed by that wider cultural influence of Christianity. 

If we want to focus on stopping sexual violence we need to ask much more disruptive questions about the conserving influence within Christian political theologies that accompanies their radical critiques. We must investigate the possible implications of that influence for the perpetuation of sexual violence, especially against some of the most vulnerable groups. Within churches and all the institutions that organize our lives, victim-survivors must be believed, perpetrators must be held accountable, strategies of self-defense and healing for the victimized must be enabled, but eradication of the violence requires serious attention to the cultural factors that sanction it.

In the United States, the rampant problem of sexual violence is culturally embedded in its white supremacist economic history of settler-colonialism as well as several centuries of chattel slavery. Christian dominance was espoused by the settlers and slave masters and conveyed in the subsequent cultural narratives that established the leaders among them as ingenious founding fathers. Christianity has thereby played a leading role in sustaining communal moral indifference to sexual violence, helping to obscure the moral significance of heterosexual rapes of Native women and women of African descent in that supposed success story of economic development. But I want to draw attention to how devaluing cultural values related to race and sex/gender within current institutional rules and individual attitudes continue to lend support to sexual violence.

Sexual violence is fueled by the manner in which white supremacist and heteropatriarchal cultural values stabilize hierarchical definitions of social status and norms. This pattern is dramatically illustrated in the violence against particularly vulnerable populations such as queer or gender non-conforming people of color. In short, I am disturbed by the parallels between the social process in the conservation of devaluing racial and sex/gender-based cultural norms that fuel sexual violence and the conceptual process employed in the conservation of Christian traditions in Christian political theology. These parallel trajectories overlap in their concern with conserving cultural traditions. The moral synergy in this overlap forms the source of my doubts about Christian political theology’s capacity to assist in devising strategies to interrupt cultural permission for sexual violence.

In churches and other key societal institutions upon which we rely, there is a troubling cultural indoctrination of morally disciplining communities to remain broadly tolerant of sexual violence. It can take the form of facilitating direct participation in sexual violence when such institutions support the entitlement of perpetrators to exercise power over those they victimize and when they reinforce the inherent blameworthiness of those targeted by the perpetrators. The disciplining also takes the form of encouraging indifference to the violence by minimizing or ignoring complaints by victim-survivors. Or, it can function within ritualizing concessions to the inevitability of the violence by vaguely referencing it in sorrowful prayers about unending human sinfulness. This kind of communal moral disciplining might be metaphorically compared to physical exercise that strengthens a muscle and political theology as a means of designing the training.

Multiple means of interrogating Christian political theology (audits of the training routines) should be invented. Those interrogations must incorporate scrupulous consideration of the ways in which political theology has joined with rather than interrupted cultural attitudes and practices (physical exercises) that enable and sustain (strengthen the muscle’s capacity for) the toleration of sexual violence.

For instance, we could probe how radical versions of Christian political theology provide order in the face of the disorder of harmful expressions of Christian faith by privileged dominant groups and enable compromises with the legacies of moral hypocrisy produced by those groups. These functions of political theology might, too vividly, echo similar aspects of how white racist and heteropatriarchal values uphold a social order and ideological cover for moral hypocrisies of rape culture that protect perpetrators and blame victims. This mutually reinforcing cultural echo of compromise with identity-based assaults may block Christian political theology’s capacity to constructively contribute to undermining the frequency and pervasiveness of sexual assaults.   

The essential goals of Christian political theology build momentum for enhanced theological grounding and relevance amidst ongoing political instability. In An Eerdmans Reader in Contemporary Political Theology, the editors, William T. Cavanaugh, Jeffrey W. Bailey, and Craig Hovey include a wide array of perspectives including postcolonial, liberationist, post-Holocaust, feminist theologies and others. In their introduction the editors identify political theology with debates in public life “about the way a tradition has reasoned about God and God’s relationship to the world” and such debates, they argue, require that one become “theologically literate” (2012, xviii). As political theology seeks to play a crucial role in developing the theological literacy of a Christian and non-Christian public its mission centers on conserving the vitality of Christian thought and traditions.

Even the expansive definition embraced in the overview of “What Political Theology Could Be” by Vincent Lloyd and David True “names critical inquiry into the connections between religion and politics” as a core task for Christian and non-Christian participants (Journalof Political Theology, 2016, 505). They reserve considerable space for energized, critical, and interdisciplinary community conversations that further the development of Christian theology.

I realize that some will strongly resist the possibility that even political theology committed to articulating God’s mandate to dismantle social oppression retains a conserving function that could render it incapable of undermining sexual violence. But the theological project of conserving Christian tradition need not be limited to updated attempts to conceptually enshrine static and dusty old idolatries that have historically enabled Christians to conquer “the other”. The conserving function of liberationist, decolonial, feminist, womanist, or queer versions of Christian political theology often serve the purpose of prophetically recuperating, reinterpreting, or transforming Christian traditions, thereby equipping Christians to meaningfully intervene in political struggles for justice in the broader society. They bring a type of order—streamlined inclusion—to the ongoing socio-spiritual disarray and confusion of the disenfranchised whose faithfulness always involves political struggle against exclusion from full dignity and sacred worth. It is confusingly unlike the journey of faithfulness for their supposed siblings in Christ who benefit from being regarded as moral and political norm and center.

Liberationist Christian political theologies seek to re-present Christian practices as empowering, as in decolonial biblical hermeneutics or anti-sexist and queer-affirming church rules and liturgies. But in doing so they teach marginalized Christian adherents that the politically devaluing damage of the tradition never invalidates its core mission, although it has too often harmed them in the most spiritually intimate manner possible, assaulting their inherent God-createdness. In many instances this approach can inspire transformative faith and spirituality. The promotion of its application to sexual violence, however, may be questionable since vulnerability to intimate sexual assault forms the threshold for the violence and its communal sanctions.

Sexual violence in one’s home, workplace, doctor’s office, pastor’s study, college dorm room, outdoor neighborhood, prison cell, military housing quarters, uncle’s home or varied other settings all constitute a subset of gender-based violence. And as such it is supported by cultural meanings of gender that nurture the vulnerable status of those who are targeted for attack. Perpetrators of sexual violence utilize the social vulnerability or isolation of those they victimize to enable their assaults and provide them with impunity afterwards. Traditional cultural assumptions about entitlement linked to the supposed natural order of heterosexuality, maleness, or whiteness that pervade public and private attitudes help to generate a myriad of social vulnerabilities. They can reinforce the false perception of a perpetrator’s right to violate the most intimate part of the body-selves and psychic needs for safety, belonging, and wholeness of the person they target for victimization. (For example, I am thinking of claims by defenders of white heterosexual U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during the Senate confirmation hearings on his alleged sexual assault of Christine Blasey-Ford. Some defenders claimed that any sexual violence that occurred thirty-two years ago when he was a youth should not matter.)

It seems woefully inadequate for those of us committed to anti-violence to continue to respond with perpetual passive hand-wringing or empty rhetorical promises of systemic transformation ignited by a morally compromised tradition dedicated to preserving itself. The consequences are too costly, especially for certain particularly vulnerable populations. For example, combined racial, socioeconomic, and sexual marginalization of queer persons of color who are poor and engaged in sex work can create some of the most extreme cases of vulnerability to sexual violence and impunity for their attackers.

The first time that I had a glimpse of this reality occurred decades ago in the early 1980s. I had a college student summer internship at anon-profit faith-based organization. It gave me the opportunity to work at a city jail for men in New Haven, CT. I remember meeting “Henry” (pseud.), an inmate, whom, I think today, might identify as transgender but I am not sure. Although labeled as male at birth and by the jail, on the street, Henry dressed as a woman and most often depended on sex work to survive economically. The police regularly sexually assaulted Henry with their knight sticks and sometimes an arrest for prostitution would follow, Henry explained to me. Even though these kinds of attacks are vastly underreported there is increased documentation of their occurrence in the twenty-first century as an ongoing reality for urban poor, gender non-conforming and trans persons. A 2016 report titled The Most Dangerous Thing Out There is thePolice: Trans Voices on Police Abuse and Profiling in Atlanta, reveals that trans women of color are routinely arrested for prostitution-related offenses and also they are routinely sexually abused (Solutions Not PunishmentCollaborative, 2016). As black feminist, anti-violence activist Andrea Ritchie points out in her analysis of this report, “nearly one in twelve trans women had been forced to engage in sexual activity with or had experienced unwanted sexual contact by, an Atlanta police officer,” (InvisibleNo More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color, 2017, 160).

The police should be a traditional, reliable resource for ensuring the community’s safety. Instead, for some of the most vulnerable members of the community they may represent the threat of routine sexual violence. Their demeaned sexualized and racialized societal status supports the targeting of them for such violence by defining their human identity as easily reducible to unnaturally disordered objects.

As we seek the best conceptual tools to contribute to our strategies for interrupting the cultural permission for sexual violence, Christian political theology seems to me to be methodologically too ill-equipped. Sometimes it seems as if there is no degree of sexually violating suffering that could convince proponents of Christian political theologies of the need for such a radical re-examination. In response to those I invite (hope to provoke?) to consider it in spite of their skepticism, I would ask: how, without a drastic methodological shift, do Christian political theologies truly take seriously the heteropatriarchal and racist legacies of Christianity and their combined morally disciplining impact on our sexually violent contemporary communities? If one insists on the capacity of Christian political theologies to help in ending this kind of intimate violence, what aspects of Christian political theology’s method and content need to die for it to contribute to the withdrawal of Christian participation in our collective cultural permission for sexual violence?


Symposium Essays

Confronting Rape Culture

Political theology, insofar as it can articulate an analysis of and resistance to rape culture, offers many resources for confronting sexual violence.

No Longer Bearing the Cross Alone

Like Simon and Veronica, those in the pews and those in the academy are called to accompany those who are abused by sharing in their pain so that survivors no longer bear this cross alone.

Kavanaugh, Ronell, and Political Theology’s Prospects for Making a Difference in Sexual Violence Today

Political theology’s prospects for contributing helpfully to movements of resistance to sexual violence depends on the willingness and ability those who contribute to political theology as a discourse to discern and prioritize the kinds of questions that are deemed most urgent by sexual violence survivors themselves and those who have devoted their work to ethically addressing this harm.

Is Christian Political Theology too conservative to undermine sexual violence?

If we want to focus on stopping sexual violence we need to ask much more disruptive questions about the conserving influence within Christian political theologies that accompanies their radical critiques.

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