A Discussion with Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Professor of Theology at Chicago Theological Seminary

February 9, 2015

Background: Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is deeply involved in activism and scholarship on peace and war. She is also a long-time leader in understanding and pressing for justice and equality in women’s roles. Her work builds on lived experience and on her rich theological scholarship and insight. Dr. Thistlethwaite’s recently completed book, Women’s Bodies as Battlefields, focuses on what she points to as “dirty wars.” She links the cultural and social features of Western society and Christianity that underlie persistent and widespread violence with the broader societal forces that have led to escalating abuse and violence against women. This discussion with Katherine Marshall on February 9, 2015 took place in the margins of the Carter Center’s Human Rights Defenders Forum in Atlanta, which focused on religion and violence against women.

What inspired you to write Women’s Bodies as Battlefields: Christian Theology and the Global War on Women? When does it come out?

I wrote the book because this is a subject that I have been thinking about all my life. What I have done in this book is to make the link between domestic violence and rape, what is called “the war on women” and the violence and in which Western culture is so deeply complicit. My work as a domestic violence counselor and activist for women thus comes together with my lifelong role as a peace activist and a scholar of theology and work on just war, and the new paradigm, just peace, of which I am one of the founding architects.

The publication schedule for the book has been accelerated and it will come out in the summer of 2015, published by Palgrave MacMillan.

When did you begin to focus so sharply on the links between violence against women and just war?

It was during the 2012 presidential campaign, when there was such horrific rhetoric about women coming from different directions. I realized that this is truly a war. And it resembles what the world now rightly calls a dirty war. It has features of the dirty wars in Argentina, the Congo, and other places. In short, the war against women is not just a war, it is a dirty war. All my experience with and work on domestic violence and on prostitution and trafficking came into focus in new ways. I was able to see how human rights aspects and the root causes of both kinds of war are intricately linked.

I had long opposed conventional war, but I came to see war in this light, as a dirty war. But in the reflections that led to the book I saw closer links to all the most problematic elements of Christianity and the cultures that surround it.

I realize that much of what I am seeing and writing about has far wider application, for other religious traditions and other societies. However, I decided deliberately to stick firmly to my own culture and my own religious tradition, that is, the United States and somewhat more broadly Western society, and Christianity.

—something you have been thinking about all your life. What do you see as the beginning of your interest and engagement?

It began in high school and even went back to junior high, in New Jersey. It was the time of the Vietnam War, and a guy I had dated was killed in the war. The issues of that war were always present in my high school. The names of people killed in the Vietnam war were listed on the wall in the hallways, until they stopped doing it because there were too many. When I got to college I was immediately involved in activism.

At Smith College, I remember distinctly the moment when we were working on a protest against the war, and someone ran in saying that students were being killed at Kent State. I realized then that I could actually die. When Nixon widened the war with the invasion of Cambodia, I was a leader of a strike at Smith. We closed down the college, and organized an alternative “strike school," an enormous effort and a learning experience. The college handled it quite well, and at least they did not shoot us! They have forgiven me, I think, and I have been back.

I continued to protest through my years in college and afterwards, through my early 20s.

At that time, we really thought we could end war. It was something our generation could achieve, because we could see that what was happening was so obviously wrong.

And what involved you in the women’s movement? You are (as am I) part of the generation that saw huge challenges but also huge changes in women’s opportunities. What channel took you into activism in this area?

I certainly was keenly aware of the blocks that stood in the way of women, at many levels. I remember a student in my theology program who said outright that girls were not smart enough to study theology. I looked him in the eye when I heard I had graduated Summa Cum Laude, and I smiled. And generally, I have always been someone who responded vigorously to any suggestion that I could not do something.

How did you come to be involved with domestic violence?

That really began as I listened to the stories of women when I was serving as a pastor in the Durham, North Carolina community. I was involved in counseling, and helped set up the first rape crisis line in that part of the country, in Piedmont, North Carolina, in 1974.

When women called, they invariably said two things. First, they said. “I’m a Bible believing Christian, but…” And second, they said that they wanted to speak to the pastor. I brought some of the women together in Bible study groups. I did that all through the years of my Ph.D. studies. I worked as a counselor at the YWCA after I moved to Massachusetts, a volunteer over all those years.

Did you have training for this role?

No, there was an assumption that as a pastor I knew all about it. I was thus self-taught. The Y recognized me as their woman of achievement not long ago. And, wonderfully, they, as a women’s organization, recognized me with a pendant that I wear, rather than some form of plaque—"bling," as a colleague called it!

How did you see the connections then, between your work with battered women and anti-war and justice activism?

At the time I did not really see them as connected. The topics were for me (and for others in the fields) quite siloed and separate. It is very clear to me now that the peace movement (which is actually very patriarchal) should have done far more to focus on the issues of violence against women, both in what happened directly in the course of war (especially rape and abuse) and in the deeper causes of violence overall. Looked at coldly, the peace movement has done virtually nothing about violence against women.

I found that I had to develop the categories in order to understand and above all to see the links. And the two phenomena are not the same; war and power and violence against women come from different sources in the society and within Christianity. But when you look at the way in which just war is justified there are many similarities with what might be termed “just rape” or “just battering,” which, in effect, means violence authorized by the society. From there the pattern of linkages widens, to social, economic, and political phenomena.

I have just published
a review of the film 50 Shades of Grey that, appallingly, opens on Valentine’s Day. It gives a very clear picture of how violence and submission are justified and framed as erotic. It is also a celebration of wealth as erotic, again a clear reflection of the way values are framed in our society. The mechanisms through which the submission is achieved, by undermining confidence, are starkly evident. The energy around the film illustrates both the power of the culture of violence and the ways in which it comes back so often to violence against women.

You emphasize the many linkages, looking to new ways of seeing the patterns. One angle you emphasize is the importance of economic inequality and injustice as a driver of violence. How specifically do you link this to violence against women?

Women’s subordinate economic status to men is, worldwide, a driver of violence against them. Women can feel trapped and may actually be ensnared as they try to escape violence. Economic empowerment for women is clearly a just peace practice. However, it must be undertaken with intensive critical analysis so that it does not contribute to violence against women instead of being a way to prevent and end it.

One conclusion you draw in the book is that the struggle for women’s reproductive freedom is a titanic and ongoing struggle by women to take the independent initiative to claim their bodies as their own. How do you see this issue in the context of your role as a religious leader?

The United Church of Christ took a clear position in 1971, that is, more than four decades ago, that it supported full reproductive rights for women, including abortion. Because of the questioning today about these rights, we should see that in many ways, what has been achieved on women’s rights amounts to a rhetorical “promise,” but not a reality. When in the name of Christianity there are efforts to restrict access to contraceptives and to safe abortion, I feel that my religious freedom is curtailed and threatened.

We have spoken often during this forum in Atlanta about “safe spaces.” How do you see efforts to build and sustain such spaces? Can you think of a good example?

Safe spaces apply both for the war on women and in more traditional war. In both, the bodies of women are made into battlefields and so the struggle must begin at the level of their physical and psychological safety. Creating “safe spaces” suggests that we take independent initiatives to reduce threats. This means very practical places. But above all it means the reconstruction of masculinity away from violence that serves as a way to achieve power and status in a masculinized society.

In the book I explore truth and reconciliation processes as one sort of safe space, as long as the process truly works to recognize and get at the underlying root causes of violence.

What is your plan or your hope for next steps in the light of your analysis?

A good friend sent me an email saying essentially, “you don’t really think that violence against women will end, do you?” I address this question in my last chapter. I see what I am achieving and aiming for as essentially movement building. The peace movement has the capacity to recognize the intersections among the different forms of violence: violence through economic rapacity, violence through brutality in warfare, and violence in the way women are seen and treated. The peace movement could be more engaged in the issues of dirty wars, as could the women’s movement. Without movement on cultural issues nothing actually changes. Thus what I am putting forward is a call to both movements to engage in the issues of both dirty wars.

I gave a speech recently at Princeton University on drones. And when I suggested that the answers could be found in the women’s movement, heads of the distinguished attendees snapped up. They looked to me like they had simply never thought of the issues of security, drones, etc. in terms of anything that had to do with women.

What I want to do is to contribute to this kind of linking among these issues and different ways of thinking about them.

Where do you see the religious element in these issues?

I write at length in the book about the links of these social phenomena to Christianity and thus to the complicity of churches and theologians in what has emerged. I also see western philosophy as very much implicated. For example, the Babylonian creation epic, the Enuma Elish, is more than 3,000 years old, and considered influential on the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. The epic, which is foundational for Western civilization, tells of a warrior god/hero, Marduk, who creates the world by splitting open the body of the goddess, Ti’amat. The goddess represents chaos, and the warrior represents the rise of civilization through subduing chaos through violence. Throughout western history, philosophy and religion, women are symbolized over and over as the chaotic that must be subdued, by force if necessary!

You can also draw connections with the New Testament Book of Revelation, where another female figure, called “The Whore of Babylon,” must be defeated for the final salvation of the world to occur. The ever popular Aristotle is involved in this line of thinking, as is Augustine and Aquinas, and so forth, not only to justify war as a way to assert political control, but also to symbolize a lot of this justification as controlling the unruly female. These connections in Western philosophy and religion are very deep and millennia in the making.

I see it as crucial to witness to the forms of injury to women as a result of war and also of peace. These forms of violence are everywhere, but there are strong social, cultural, religious and economic forces that conspire to hide them. I see a recognition of the religious elements in the formation of attitudes towards violence, power, and women as crucial in the search for solutions.

But first, we cannot solve what we refuse to see. In the conflict mediation movement we often say, “A conflict that cannot be named cannot be mediated.” The war on women is so often an unseen and unnamed conflict, and that has to stop. It is the key not only to ending the “dirty war” on women, but ending the “dirty war” of violent extremism that is so characteristic of our time.

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