Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

“Women’s Bodies as a Battleground: Christian Theology and the Global War of Women”

An hourlong teleconference with

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

1 PM to 2 PM ET

WATER spoke with Susan Thistlethwaite for our April 2016 WATERtalk. Susan is Professor of Theology at Chicago Theological Seminary and previously served as the 11th president of CTS. An ordained minister of the United Church of Christ since 1974, she is the author or editor of thirteen books, including two different translations of the Bible. Her new book, Women’s Bodies as Battlefield: Christian Theologies and the Global War on Women (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2015), has been #1 on Amazon’s “Hot New Bestsellers” in the Human Rights category. She writes for several online news outlets, and her columns can be found on her Huffington Post author page.

In the 2012 presidential campaign, everyone was talking about the “war on women.” I thought, you know, this actually is a war. Violence against women is the largest and longest global war. We treat war as though it’s aberrant, an artifact; and when we see violence against women it’s seen as an error.

I wanted to make a case that the philosophical structures like just war theory, that justify and require violence, are the same structures that facilitate, justify, and even require violence against women. This is a fundamental misnaming, misdirection of the primary problem of human existence. It’s not body-soul dualism, a dichotomy between sin and grace. Violence is justified as a requirement for certain understandings of the body, vulnerable bodies, racial/ethnic minorities, LGBTQ bodies, poor bodies. There is a whole group of bodies for whom at times violence is “justified” or “mandatory.” The chain of violence goes from God the Father to the vulnerable women’s body.

For book events, I’ve invited rape crisis groups, peace groups, battered women’s shelters. I ask if they know each other and work together, and the answer is uniformly “no.” In the book, I’m recommending collaboration among these groups. It is so obviously a thing we should do, and something we do not do at the moment.

Rita Nakashima Brock and I wrote a book together on prostitution and she is active in the peace movement. In the book, we say that neither of us has been treated in as sexist a fashion as we have been in the peace movement. I also wrote this book to be available for this election season. Even without a prominent woman as candidate for president, as was the case in 2012, misogyny was visible and is now. But never in my life did I think it would be like this. Trump is a symptom of a society riddled with hierarchical power that translates politically into hatred of women’s bodies, in my view.

Key points from the book:

The body – So much of justification of violence requires hiding the body, hiding the injuries, justifying injuries, minimizing the lifelong physical and mental suffering that results from violence. But this is not the body in general. I try to argue that there has been a tendency on the part of some to generalize about women and girls.

I developed this category called “critical physicality.” We need to bring all of our critical work/critical race theory/analyses of homophobia/strengths of queer theory/economic analysis to this work. Bodies have gender, sexual orientations, races, sizes, shapes, abilities. Thus some bodies are made more available to exploitations and violence than others.

Bodies have interpretations put on them by cultural contexts. An African American friend of mine talked about how she feels how a predominantly white room changes when her black body walks in. Bodies get arranged by societies. This is a fundamental argument of the book, both in terms of battering, rape, and exploitation, but also in terms of our approach to war.

It needs to define how we talk about war. Most killed in war today are not combatants. They are generally the more vulnerable in a society. War today is dirty war – war on the bodies of civilians. And that’s the war on women, a dirty war. Dirty war is about bodies.


Now to turn to just war theory:

I had worked with the Carter Center and was in a meeting with Jimmy Carter, who leaned over to me and said “Just war theory had it coming.” Just war theory had been a gloss that permits societies to think that they can wage war and do it in a just fashion. Drone warfare policies by the Obama administration fit the category of just war theory. There is a just cause, right authority, proportionality, etc.

I argue that there is a “just battering” tradition – men have a “just cause” because male authority means that if a wife disobeys, etc., a man has just cause for violence. They can chastise their wives. There was law on what size stick a man can use to beat his wife. These parallel each other. There is a “just rape” tradition, where women and girls can be legitimately raped, even in the Bible – or they’re “asking for it,” walking alone, wearing provocative clothes. Women are blamed for their own rapes. They are to have consented if they don’t die, and even if they do die, they are still sometimes blamed.

We turn to the peace tradition. We hope they have more to offer, but that is not the case. For pacifist males, Mennonites, Brethren, Quakers, violence and rape are prevalent in these communities, and the onus is on talking about it. They have started to acknowledge that they have a very high opinion of their own righteousness because of their principled opposition to war. And there is a preaching of self-sacrifice to women. Put these together and you get a prescription for systemic violence that is quite hidden. If you talk about it, that’s breaking the peace.

We also turn to John Howard Yoder and the long struggle to confront his sexual assault in Mennonite communities. My teaching assistant and editorial assistant is a gay Mennonite, and he talks about his struggles. He left the church to write the first gay Mennonite commentary and has talked at length about the parallels of the John Howard Yoder suppression and the suppression of LGBTQ rights in the Mennonite tradition. Yoder’s sexual misconduct and the way he justified it reveals flaws in his pacifism. Pacifism has this legacy.


Turning now to just peace:

In attempting to build one Christian peace statement, we ran into trouble. We had so much conflict we had to hire an outside mediator. Glen Stassen, a Baptist peace advocate with whom I’ve done 3 books, came up with practice norms. We don’t talk about peace in theory, we talk about what has worked, historically speaking, to reduce, prevent violence and increase justice.

We came up with 10 practice norms. We struggled to get people in this diverse group to embrace the body in proactive peacemaking – there was a bias toward policy. I spend the latter part of the book talking about what we need to improve just peace, to embrace the erotics of peacemaking, to see a physicality to peacemaking. We need to embrace the trauma theory of Lehman Gembowh in Liberia, and I think we need to embrace not the plasticized erotic that Audre Lorde writes about, but just the erotic. Justice and peace need to be desired.

  1. Nonviolent direct action. That of Gandhi, King, and others. Classically, protests, marches, and strikes. Nonviolence direct action is about becoming a human being, being an agent in history. It is so important for women to be agents of their own lives. I added the shelter movement to this – a proactive movement to shelter women who are battered and could be killed.
  1. Independent initiatives to reduce threats. Women’s right to protect and control their own bodies in terms of both contraception and abortion is at the center of this conflict called the war on women. The first 6 bills after Obama was elected were regulating women’s reproduction. The dangerous attacks on Planned Parenthood can be seen as organized violence against women.
  1. Cooperative conflict resolution is important. Dialogue can appear to be a way to reduce conflict, but it ignores gross power inequalities between parties of the dialogue. For example, when one party is battered you do not use conflict mediation. That puts people at risk and hides power differentials. Another example: Black Lives Matter is not saying we need racial dialogue that hides the power inequalities. They are saying to stop killing people and create conditions of economic justice.
  1. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict. Seek repentance and forgiveness. I at first objected to this – women who are treated violently are told forgive, forgive, forgive. Over the years I have come to recognize how different the dynamics of forgiveness are for those who have been treated violently. They need to be able to regain control and be the agents of what to appropriate from how they have been treated. They can do what they need to do, seek legal redress, etc. When and if they are ready, they may put it down. If you give the power of forgiveness to the person you feel needs to repent, it doesn’t recognize that to overcome the violence you need to become the agent. You choose.
  1. Advance democracy human rights and independence. In post-conflict regions, women’s rights actually deteriorate.
  1. Foster just and sustainable economic development.
  1. Work with emerging cooperative forces. Who has the power?
  1. United Nations. Stop UN troops from raping women. UN and power sharing are problematic.
  1. Reduce offensive weapons and the weapons trade. Two-thirds of women killed by their husbands or partners were killed by a firearm in previous two decades. The abuse of women in homes where there is a gun is 5 times more likely to be lethal.
  1. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups. Women are hugely represented in peace groups, but often not in leadership. Collaboration with domestic violence and rape crisis programs (but not merging) is crucial to broader based approach to just peace.


Q: I would like to hear a little more about the erotics of peace and what happens when bringing in food sovereignty and extractive industries and this violence against the earth.

A: I have a chapter about the erotic fictions of the war on women in the book. If the fiction of war is the heroic, the fiction of violence against women is the erotic. How do we reclaim and celebrate the body in peacemaking? The definition of the erotic is loving the body, the other. But where is the desire and love of justice within the peacemaking community? It’s provocative to claim we need an erotics of peacemaking, but I mean desire, what Audre Lorde means by erotic. The erotic life of racism and the permutations of desire are also perverted even within social justice struggles.

Extracted rape of the earth, food sovereignty: I argue that hierarchical power and dualism flaws are the model for global capitalism. I think that so much excellent work has been done on the earth and its symbolization of women’s bodies, so I draw on that. This is the model of exploitative global capitalism that is deported – Christian capitalism that tries to promote exploitation.

Q: Gail Dines’ recent piece in the Washington Post on pornography came to mind: whether it is a moral issue or a public health crisis. How does this research square with your own? It seems this sets the conversation on a new trajectory which is harder to derail than the moral one.

A: In the erotic fictions of the war on women, one of the things I try to point out in terms of critical physicality is that the early struggles against pornography were unidirectional in relationship to a particular understanding of the exploitation of women, mostly by white women’s groups. Lesbians in San Francisco said, “Look, we make our own pornography, and if your laws are enacted, it will be we, the vulnerable, who will be jailed, not the wealthy producers.”

I start the chapter with the Story of O, the film of which was protested. The Story of O is incredibly racist, but it’s coded and these anti-pornography activists often use the language of slavery. African American activists often say that conflating this exploitation with that of slavery means we need more care in our activism and definitions. The advantage of this as a public health crisis means we can recognize the health effects of pornography industry. Anytime there are issues of legal and illegal sexuality, there’s this whole superstructure with whose bodies are regulated and whose bodies can escape regulation. Who ultimately will end up being punished if there’s regulation?

Q: Globally, the West seems to feel it has been superior compared to outrages in other parts of the world, but you critique our Western society too, which has been informed by Christianity. How do you look at the failure of Christianity, since it has remained stubbornly so huge?

A: I had to make some decisions as an activist and theologian – what is my context and what can I legitimately own? For example, I didn’t write a second section of the book on Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism. I think we can document how much Christianity has helped to export violence. Things like the Lethal homophobia in Africa have been funded by Western Christian sources. I’m an advocate of owning your own stuff and seeing what changes can be made. Western Christianity and philosophy have a lot to answer for in the world. I made a deliberate choice to stick with Western culture and Christianity, and root out from within my own. I would recommend President Carter’s book, A Call To Action, which is specific in its work to end violence against women around the world.

Q: Could you comment on the dearth of news articles about the abducted girls in Nigeria by Boko Haram?

A: The answer is implicit in your question, if it affects us (the West) with fears of terrorism, then it’s on track in terms of the news media. You have articles about young girls being used as bombs, and people are going to click on that. It’s a corporate decision because it puts their advertising in front of you. To really be safe from domestic terrorism in the US, you need to get the guns – we had 24 people in the US killed by terrorists in last year, but 30,000 by guns.

Corporate media is anti-peace. Corporate media wants to make you afraid because you will click on their article and look at their advertising. There is wonderful group in Washington, including the Center for Health and Gender Equality and led by Serra Sippel, trying to pressure Obama to use executive order to allow US foreign aid to pay for abortions for girls raped by ISIS and Boko Haram. This administration has not yet acted on that, though it is something US foreign policy can do.

Q: A moral dilemma sometimes for those writing about violence against women is the tension of wanting to document abuses, hold up women as agents, but not reinforce victimization. The cover of the book too, which is from women working against femicide in Bolivia – how do we reinforce that women all over the world are responding to this?

A: I chose the cover deliberately, not to project a “these poor women in Bolivia” sentiment but to acknowledge this incredible legislative effort, getting femicide into law. You run risks in a lot of different directions – you can so emphasize women’s action that you’re not actually helping expose the forces of violence against them. It’s a tough navigation, but useful to try to not define what going on in terms of a Western feminist analysis but to highlight the enormous creativity against incredible odds. In every task, you make ethical choices, and getting help/consultation is okay. Every step of the way is difficult.

WATER thanks Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and wishes her every blessing in the year ahead. The next WATERtalk will be May 11, 2016, from 1 to 2 pm ET with Rita Nakashima Brock on the topic “Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War.” All are welcome to join.  
Register here.