From Horror to Prevention

Jason M. Silverman, University of Helsinki

Recently the field of Hebrew Bible has been rocked by another scandal, following closely on the heels of allegations of theft and smuggling of ancient manuscripts. Yet I was still shocked by the recent revelation that Jan Joosten, the now suspended professor of Hebrew at Christ Church, Oxford, was convicted of possessing tens of thousands of images of the sexual abuse of children. A flurry of activity on social media and the websites of related academic societies ensued; the most eloquent response I have seen so far was posted on the Shiloh Project (by Johanna Stiebert). To date I have largely remained in stunned silence, for what words suffice in the face of such abuse? And this is merely the tip of a depraved iceberg: there is an entire list of biblical scholars convicted of similar sexual offenses. Even worse, as noted by M. Adryael Tong in the “Annual Meeting Hotel Lobby,” the number of victims of child abuse is staggering: 10% of children. The victimization of children—particularly those of color—is a daily occurrence at the behest of the US government, to little censure by faith leaders. Networks for trafficking children such as those run by Epstein remain un-dismantled, while those supposed to prosecute them are implicated in perpetuating them. We need to mobilize our horror at these things towards stopping them.

How can we, as Biblical scholars, respond in a meaningful way, to change structures that allow such abuse to exist and persist, to protect potential victims, and help heal surviving victims? Biblical scholars might be inclined to turn to their specialty and offer commentary on distressing passages such as the rape of Dinah in Gen 34 or on broader themes of sexual violence in the text.

However, another question is how to treat the publications of scholars convicted of such crimes. From the perspective of the sociology of research, citations are the currency by which reputations and careers are made, funding granted, and positions of power offered. This means that a citation has an effect beyond just the ideas in the work towards the author’s place in academia. Should one continue to cite them as if normal? Erase their memory by never citing them again? Cite them with a footnote noting their crimes? Christianity has long had this debate over art and artists, theology and theologians as well. Should we reject Tillich or Barth because they couldn’t stay zipped up?

Even more, how can we support marginalized communities in and around the guild? Such groups include children, adult survivors of abuse, and transgender students and scholars to only name a few. One response is to donate to organizations that work with and for victims, as Ron Hendel has announced he will do with the proceeds from his co-authored book. There are a number of organizations that work towards child welfare which one could support.

As worthy as all of the above responses are, they are unlikely to accomplish enough structural change in the field of biblical studies (or in the academy at large). In this they are somewhat ‘prophetic’[i] in addressing specific problematic behaviors while leaving intact the social structures that enable them. We need to think more broadly—either with regular ethical and meta-disciplinary seminars on best practices in the field, and/or by fostering more open and democratic structures that reduce the ability of perpetrators to hide behind power and influence. Maybe faculties or professional associations need to make access to confidential spiritual, psychological, and addiction support services easier for victims as well as potential perpetrators. We need better structures for dealing with abuses that neither ignore the voices of victims nor degrade the rights of the innocent. Such changes take time, but they would help address other abuses of power as well (e.g., sexual harassment).

Whatever decisions one comes to in relation to these specific ethical questions or ones I have not mentioned, one thing is clear: neither professional nor lay readers of the Bible can remain content with the status quo. Our responsibility includes changing the structures that enable abuses to occur and their perpetrators to repeat their abuses, not just in their repudiation. This may require some radical rethinking of the way we work.

[i] I.e., like the prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible, which call for social justice, but do not call for any changes in the social structures that create oppression.