Friday, 13 March 2009

Tamar and campaigning against violence against women

This is in part a cross post from the Women in Ministries blog.
I keep mentioning the Ecumenical Women's blog as there's a lot of activity at the moment because the UN's commission on the status of women is still meeting in New York, those involved in the ecumenical women's network are posting contributions from workshops and talks that they have been organising as part of the advocacy work they are doing at the commission.
Alison Killeen has written an interesting piece about third wave feminism and how we read the Bible called Bringing Tamar along with me. It reminded me of the first year of our feminist theology group here in Geneva when I led a study of the raped concubine in Judges. How do we deal with Bible texts which are so uncritically violent towards women? I vaguely remember that as I groped towards a feminist hermeneutic of that text which tells of horrific violence - gang rape and dismemberment - I tried to say that although I initially found it difficult for such a text to nourish my faith, I was at least grateful that this story in some of its true terribleness is in the Bible - it would seem that the host's virgin daughter is also given to the gang to rape but we never even hear whether she survives. Much of women's experience - good and bad is similarly just untold.
Today we can use the pieces of the remaining story not to raise an army, as the Levite does with the pieces of his concubine's body, but to raise awareness, bring back to mind, re-member. Rather than accepting or treating this violence as commonplace we can bring these biblical stories out of silence and use them to help women and men tell their stories, and so campaign against violence in its many forms.
It's not been easy for churches to campaign against sexual violence but the Tamar campaign is one excellent attempt. There's a link here to an article by Gerald West and Phumzile Zondi-Mabizela telling how a Bible story became a campaign. Taking Tamar with us may help us tell stories in a way that helps to transform the world and work against domestic violence.

Here are some extracts from Killeen's talk on Tamar:

I am a third-wave feminist. And sometimes, I have no idea what that means.

At the Ecumenical Women Orientation two weeks ago, we worked with feminist theologian Caryn Riswold to elaborate on what it is to be a third-wave feminist in today’s world. Three generations reflected on whether the distinction of “third-wave” is even helpful. They worried about where the next generation will take us. And, they expressed concern over whether feminism itself is dead
We never hear what happens to Tamar after this story. The horror of discovering this rape in the Bible is eclipsed only by the realization that even the author cares not what happened to Tamar after all was said and done. Her life, her name, the “rape of Tamar” – these all serve in the text only as a function to explain why later her brother Absalom, who told her to stay silent, kills her brother Amnon, who raped her. In the story, Tamar is property to be protected or violated. She is a figure whose violation represents not her own personal grief but her family’s public shame; a woman whose grief is but a footnote in the long opus to political power that we find recorded in the Bible.

Discovering the story of Tamar, a text that is out-of-lectionary and therefore out-of-mind, is an experience that can be tragic and which can feel incredibly problematic, especially for the thoughtful Christian feminist reading the Bible. Tamar’s story infuses the rest of the scriptures with a painful twist, a wrench in your gut reminding you that although the Apostle Paul spoke in Galatians about the equality of the Jew and the Greek, the slave and the free, the male and the female—when he mentions it in Corinthians, he conspicuously leaves the part about gender equality out.

Last week Fulata Moyo and Ezra Chitando showed us how one can use the story of Tamar another way. They, along with other colleagues in Southern Africa, use it to teach young people – especially young men – about domestic violence, rape, and the silencing of women in their own contexts. Asking questions about the role of power and gender in the story of Tamar, the young men to assess their own lives for whom has power and how it is utilized. Engaging people in conversation about the roles of Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom in this bible passage encourages them to identify people in their own lives who are Amnon, are Tamar, and are Absalom.