Leaving silence

Seminary professor’s book reclaims the Bible as a source of hope and healing for survivors of sexualized violence

Susannah Larry, assistant professor of biblical studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., is author of Leaving Silence: Sexualized Violence, the Bible and Standing with Survivors. — Annette Brill Bergstresser/AMBS Susannah Larry, assistant professor of biblical studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., is author of Leaving Silence: Sexualized Violence, the Bible and Standing with Survivors. — Annette Brill Bergstresser/AMBS

Susannah Larry, assistant professor of biblical studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Sem­inary in Elkhart, Ind., has written a new book, Leaving Silence: Sexualized Violence, the Bible and Standing with Survivors (Herald), exploring biblical stories of sexualized violence from a survivor-centered ­approach. Larry joined the AMBS faculty in 2020.

Anabaptist World asked Annette Brill Bergstresser, communications manager at AMBS, to interview Larry about her examination of how some of the Bible’s most difficult texts can serve as a healing witness.

How did you come to write this book?

Where I grew up, we didn’t substantially engage with large swaths of Scripture, especially in the Old Testament. We avoided conflict between Scripture and our progressive values, especially concerning issues of exclusion and violence in the Old Testament. So, when I got to seminary, much of the violence in the Bible — especially sexualized violence — was new to me.

Surprisingly, maybe, this Scriptural violence didn’t deter me from studying it further. In fact, it fueled my interest and passion for doing so.

Many of us don’t have the option to avoid hard things, and the Bible doesn’t look away from them either. This is what makes the Scriptures such a profound source of hope for me. When we pass through the troubled waters of sexualized violence, God is with us. We are heard, we are seen, and we are known.

As I grew in my vocation as a teacher, particularly in church contexts, more and more people told me their stories of sexualized trauma. I longed to share what I was learning about the Bible’s concern with their suffering. When Herald Press leaders reached out to me about writing this book, shortly after the announcement of my appointment at AMBS, I felt like my prayers had been answered.

What does Leaving Silence have to say to the church at this time of increased awareness of sexualized violence?

The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements have leveraged social media effectively to bring attention to the tragic commonness of sexualized violence. These movements have brought into the light what people treated as too shameful to discuss.

But it hasn’t been clear what the Bible’s role in this new era was supposed to be. Could the Bible really be a resource of hope and healing in this time, especially given the painful content it contains and the ways in which some interpreters have weaponized it against survivors?

I wanted to write Leaving Silence to say that we can reclaim the Bible as a transformative word for survivors of sexualized violence and their communities.

Yes, the violence is there and real, both in the Bible’s time and our own. But God’s presence with, witness to and transformation of trauma is there and real as well. The Bible invites us into deep, difficult conversations about wrestling with the text and with our broken and beautiful world — conversations that are sure to leave us changed.

What key points do you want readers to take away from the book?

I want my readers to know that sexualized violence is generally about power, not sex. Imbalances of power, such as racism and sexism, create situations ripe for sexualized violence.

That’s why I call it sexualized violence, not sexual violence, because sex itself is not the problem. Perpetrators of abuse distort God’s good and beautiful gift of sex in their attempt to gain power unjustly over others.

The most important point of my book may be that God bears witness to the trauma of sexualized violence and calls us to walk alongside each other and do the same. The presence of emotionally responsive companions changes the experience of trauma, not taking away pain but guiding survivors into a more hopeful and joyful trajectory.

So often, male survivors feel disempowered through the framing of sexualized violence as a “women’s issue.” Given these dynamics, male survivors often fear that telling their stories will emasculate them. In Leaving Silence, I share some of the Bible’s witness to the stories of male survivors.

Unfortunately, families play a role in many painful stories of sexualized violence. One of my goals in Leaving Silence is to name the harm families can do, while presenting a biblical vision of family that goes beyond our biological kin.

For many survivors, self-blame is a haunting scar of trauma. The Bible both contains the trauma of self-blame and invites us to imagine pathways beyond it.

Finally, I want readers to close the book with an awareness that sexualized violence is so pernicious and prevalent that even Jesus Christ, the Son of God, experienced it during his torture and death as he was humiliatingly stripped and exposed. Jesus’ experience of sexualized violence — and his resurrection — demonstrate God’s nearness in the brokenness of the world and the transforming power of God’s love.

What are your hopes for how Leaving Silence will make a difference for individuals and congregations?

I hope readers will see reflected in the Bible parts of their own stories of brokenness and healing. I pray they’ll understand that sexualized violence is never within the will of God. God is bearing witness to and transforming survivors’ stories, moving us all toward a reign in which this book is no longer needed.

As the title suggests, I also hope this book will open up possibilities other than silence for those affected by sexualized violence. At the same time, there should be no pressure for survivors to share their stories; telling these stories does not make a person a “better” survivor.

Those entrusted with survivors’ stories must carry them with sensitivity and responsibility, making sure that survivors’ wishes and wellness take center stage.

Often silence and shame create a vicious feedback loop for survivors. My hope is that Leaving Silence will open conversations within and beyond the church that build community, solidarity and dignity.

How does your engagement with the Bible shape your scholarship and your teaching?

My engagement with the Bible is always a dance between respecting the worlds, texts, literature, writing and audience of the Bible while rising to the challenges of interpretation today. Sometimes, especially with the topic of sexualized violence, that’s a challenge.

For instance, take the issue of consent, which is so central to 21st-century discussions of sexualized violence. I think consent is a perfectly reasonable standard for encounters, but the societies of the biblical world often did not view women as having sexual agency, making consent irrelevant at that time.

I’m always trying to find ways to let the Bible speak and to recognize the ways in which humans try to make sense of God’s revelation to us in our context.

My passion is to invite others alongside me on this journey of recognizing how Scripture has already animated lives with the Holy Spirit and how it continues to do so today.

As an Anabaptist, one of my core values is that we don’t interpret Scripture best on our own. We read texts most faithfully as a community of believers. When we read the Bible together, there’s a lot of wrestling involved, a lot of vulnerability and a lot of transformation. I’m grateful when people are willing to join me in this hard work.

In the United States, Leaving Silence is available from Herald Press and other online booksellers. In Canada, it is available from CommonWord. An accompanying study guide written by Laura Rhoades, an AMBS Master of Divinity Connect student from Wichita, Kan., can be accessed at heraldpress.com/study-guides.

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