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Reading Scripture with Sex Abuse Survivors


Jun 30 2011
Elaine Heath's 'We Were the Least of These' offers a healing balm, but should be read alongside more traditional interpretations of Scripture.

Laura survived a rigid and abusive fundamentalist upbringing, then married a Baptist minister who sexually abused her. Now she's an atheist. Vyckie was a wife and mom in the Quiverfull movement who now also leans toward atheism, believing that the Bible necessarily leads to oppressive patriarchy. For these women, and for other survivors of sexual abuse (SA), church just doesn't feel safe, because church—and not just the Catholic Church—is where SA happens. Because of these women's experiences, the image of a male God, presumed by some scriptural interpretations to be primarily interested in men and male interests, is decidedly unattractive.

In the spirit of Phyllis Trible, whose now-classic books God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality and Texts of Terror pioneered explorations of women in Scripture, Elaine A. Heath, professor of evangelism at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas, has written a book offering hope to SA survivors and those who 'journey with them.' The title, We Were the Least of These (Brazos Press), hints at Heath's guiding concept: that far from being misogynistic, the gospel is truly good news for victims of SA, that whatever has been done to them ('the least of these') has been done to Jesus, whose death and resurrection is "a living power that lifts us out of the black holes of our lives, that heals our wounds, that removes our shame."

As a pastor-theologian, as well as a survivor of SA herself, Heath exudes compassion for those who've suffered the myriad scars of sexual abuse, and an understanding of how certain readings of Scripture can be deeply therapeutic. The story of Esther is often read as a tale about heroism, with the original queen, Vashti, read as a foolish woman who refused to obey her husband. Heath's reading senses the exploitative nature of King Xerxes' attempt to 'display' his wife, and his generally irascible nature. In this way, Heath understands Esther as an abused woman who is nonetheless strong and able to speak out for others.

Heath's close re-readings of Scripture (granted, from an unapologetically feminist perspective) are illustrated with stories from SA therapists and survivors. The result is a book that's at once strongly theological and thoroughly pastoral, an excellent resource for both survivors and those who seek to offer them solace. Each chapter concludes with points for reflection and recommended activities; there's even a 'retreat plan' for SA survivors, including many creative ideas for therapeutic reflection and re-creation.

From: June 2011

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