Content warning: sexual violence. trauma. mutilation. knives.
I have my car seats adjusted in a very particular way. If I don’t, the seatbelt sometimes brushes against my neck or collarbone in a way that sends my body spiraling into a terrifying panic. Why? Because one winter I was restrained with straps that were the same weight, width, and texture of a seatbelt. Strangers fastened them around my shoulders, hips, and ankles. And as they fumbled with the shoulder straps, they rubbed against my neck and collarbone, just like a seat belt.
I now know that the people restraining me were, in fact, medical professionals trying to help me. But at the time they were simply strangers and I was in a strange and terrifying place. When a seatbelt rubs in just the wrong way, both my mind and body return to that place. My heart races. I feel the pressure of the straps on my chest and ankles. My mind is flooded with memories of the incident. This panic doesn’t happen very much anymore, but when it does it is because I’m not thinking about it. It happens when I’m caught off guard – when I’m riding in a new car, for example. Or if I wake up suddenly after drifting off in the passenger seat on a long road trip.
It is difficult for me to tell this story, and until now I have only shared it with my husband and two trusted friends. I am sharing publicly now not because I particularly want to share something so personal, but because it’s a good example of a post-traumatic stress response and the way it is experienced in the body. Post-traumatic stress is a real thing. It’s not imaginary.
This week, candidates for ordination in the Presbyterian Church USA were given their exegesis exams. The exegesis exam is essentially a deep-dive into a Bible passage. Students are asked to look into a passage of the Bible very deeply, in the original language. They are to consult commentaries and experts and then write their own detailed analysis of what the text means. They are also asked to write an outline for a sermon or Bible Study explaining how they would teach or preach the passage to a congregation.
A few days ago the students received their exams. The passage is Judges, chapter 19. I encourage you to read the whole thing HERE, but the most trauma-inducing pieces, in my view, are these:
(CONTENT WARNING: SEXUAL ASSAULT/GRAPHIC VIOLENCE)
They said to the old man, the master of the house, “Bring out the man who came into your house, so that we may have intercourse with him.” And the man, the master of the house, went out to them and said to them, “No, my brothers, do not act so wickedly. Since this man is my guest, do not do this vile thing. Here are my virgin daughter and his concubine; let me bring them out now. Ravish them and do whatever you want to them, but against this man do not do such a vile thing.” But the men would not listen to him. So the man seized his concubine and put her out to them. They wantonly raped her and abused her all through the night until the morning. And as the dawn began to break, they let her go. As morning appeared, the woman came and fell down at the door of the man’s house where her master was, until it was light.
In the morning her master got up, opened the doors of the house, and when he went out to go on his way, there was the woman, his concubine, lying at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold. “Get up,” he said to her, “we are going.” But there was no answer. Then he put her on the donkey, and the man set out for his home. When he had entered his house, he took a knife, and grasping his concubine he cut her into twelve pieces, limb by limb, and sent her throughout all the territory of Israel. Then he commanded the men whom he sent, saying, “Thus shall you say to all the Israelites: Has such a thing ever happened[e] since the day that the Israelites came up from the land of Egypt until this day? Consider it, take counsel, and speak out.”
I’ve been ordained for fifteen years and I’ve never, not once, preached on this passage. I don’t intend to preach on it either. Ever. I’ve not chosen it for Bible Study or lifted up in any public way with my congregation. The reason is simple: the study or proclamation of a passage like this requires pastoral sensitivity and care. It requires such sensitivity and care, in fact, that I’m not confident I have the proper training.
There are thoughtful scholars who have profound things to say about this passage. I’ve read them.
I could not disagree more with the choice to make seminary students do an in-depth analysis of this passage as a requirement for ordination. Not because it’s controversial. Not because it’s ugly. Not because it’s rigorous.
This passage is, without a doubt, the seatbelt brushing against the collarbone of many women. The probability that this passage in this exam context caused a trauma reaction in someone is close to 100%. Why? Because “over half of women have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact.” One in six has experienced a rape or an attempted rape.
They wantonly raped her and abused her all through the night until the morning.
An exegetical exam asks the reader to look at a passage for days. When I took my exegesis exam I was immersed in the passage completely. Slept it. Ate it. Breathed it. My husband also took the exegesis exam, and when he did, he was the passage. The exam is no joke.
It’s not merely insensitive to ask seminary students to do an exegesis on this passage without warning them and giving them a chance to opt-out. It’s irresponsible. It’s lacking in the kind of basic pastoral care and sensitivity I expect of absolutely every pastor going into ministry. The students are supposed to be immersed in this passage alone. It’s a test. You’re not supposed to be reaching out about it, talking about it. It’s you and your books. You have to do it or you don’t get to be a pastor.
I’m writing a public post about this because I tried to write to the person responsible for the exam about it and the response was laughably dismissive.
People have raised concerns on the exam’s social media page and comments have been deleted. (UPDATE: 2/3/23 — I have no proof posts were deleted. Posts may have been removed by Facebook or hidden by the algorithm.)
One of the things I said in my original email was “I have to breathe deeply and find support whenever I read passages like this. They bring to mind lots of experiences and thoughts I’d rather not talk about. I’m certain there are women who are currently wrestling with this passage who are being confronted, not only with the passage, but with memories of their own rape, assault, attacks, etc. It’s too heavy a burden to carry for an exegesis exam, in my opinion.”
I offered a number of suggestions for what could be done, including offering an alternate exam as soon as possible.
The response I received said that the creators of the exam had already considered my concerns “with the seriousness they warrant.” It also said that my suggestion that students be given an alternate exam was “simply not possible” given the years-long process it takes to create the exam.
I suggested that students be offered counseling and support if they need it. Radio silence to that suggestion.
I’ve sat on this one for a couple of days, waiting for an official response from the PCUSA, which was received this morning.
I’ll publish the full text of the response at the end of this post for you to judge for yourself. My own opinion of the response is this: it’s not enough. It defends the status quo. It hides behind clunky process instead of defaulting to a caring and pastoral response to trauma. There is no apology, nor recognition that any of the pain and trauma response we’re talking about is real. Women in ministry have enough trauma as ministers in ministry. We’re harassed and assaulted in our own churches. We need our national office to back us up and listen to us when we say we are hurting. More listening. Less defending. We’re begging our national leaders to listen and to hear.
I’m hopeful there will be much more time for the committee to listen, and it appears, from the letter, that this is the intention. I deeply appreciate this.
Let me also say why I am disappointed in this response. First, it fails to acknowledge and apologize for the damage done to any taker of the exam who is a survivor of sexual assault. Second, it displays an alarming lack of understanding of the true nature of trauma by equating sexual violence with an examination question regarding mandated reporting. Third, by requiring that requests for deferral be directly submitted to the man in charge (who has the authority to approve or deny them), it displays a concerning lack of learning from what survivors of assault have been telling us: placing the burden of proof on the victim re-traumatizes them, while protecting the very systems of patriarchy and power that do not hold violating parties accountable. And last but certainly not least, suggesting that violent texts haven’t been a problem in the exams of the past does not in any way justify their continued use in the present.
I can’t stop thinking about some of the things I’d rather not talk about. I’m fine telling the seatbelt story, but not all the stories.
I don’t owe anyone my stories and the women taking this exam don’t either. I’m certain many of them are now trapped.
The kind of suffering that comes from post-traumatic stress is agonizing. The brain remembers the trauma as if it is happening in the present moment.
They cut her into pieces limb by limb
They cut her
Limb by limb
There is significance in those twelve pieces. I would write about it if I were going to write a paper on this passage but I don’t want to, and thank God I don’t have to.
I have no doubt that there were survivors of sexual assault who signed off on this exam or see no problem with assigning it to students, perhaps because of how serious the topic is. It makes logical sense to me that the creators of this exam thought it was an important exercise or that it might send a message to the larger church of the importance of wrestling with the sexual violence in the Bible and handling it well. There is another side to this story, certainly. My point is, though, the trauma side was not considered “with the seriousness it warrants.” If it had been, the exam would have never been sent out into the world like this. The pain inflicted is too great. The suffering too deep.
If you just took that exam and you’re struggling, please reach out to a trained trauma therapist as soon as possible. If you don’t have anyone to reach out to, reach out to me. I’ll do what I can to help you find the support you need. I’m so sorry you were made to suffer unnecessarily in this way.
It is clear that the committee has heard from many concerned parties, and that their response reflects an unwillingness to repent and reform. This is an unfortunate response from a denomination that claims to be “reformed, always reforming.” May it one day live up to its own mission.
Please see the full text of the response sent from the Reverend Tim Cargal this morning, 2/2/23
On behalf of the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates (PCC), we want to thank you for sharing your concerns about the use of Judges 19:1-30 as the scriptural basis for the Winter 2023 Bible Exegesis exam. Within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), we speak of the preparation for ministry process as “being under care” of the presbytery and a session, and we recognize these expressions of concern as being fundamentally a desire to care for all those involved in the examination process as both candidates and readers. As a committee of the presbyteries, the PCC always seeks to be a caring partner with CPMs and sessions in this important work of preparation and discernment with inquirers and candidates.
The Executive Committee met on Wednesday, February 1, 2023, to consider the concerns and requests that have been communicated about this Exegesis exam. Exam scenarios that address issues of sexual abuse and trauma can and have appeared in several of the subject areas of the standard ordination exams (for example, relating to mandatory reporting under the church’s polity). Whenever this is the case, the PCC carefully considers the appropriateness of the topic to the examination at every stage of the three-year process of developing the specific questions and the evaluation resources prepared for the readers. While exam security issues (relating to the general area and specific content of questions) preclude providing advance notice to presbytery committees when these or other sensitive areas will be addressed, the PCC does work to handle such topics with care. As an example, in this current case the following paragraph was included at the very outset of the reader training resources:
Note to Readers: The members of the PCC are aware that the selected passage for this exam (Judges 19:1-30), like many other passages in Scripture, is difficult to read and may elicit a wide range of personal emotions and reactions in both the exam takers and the exam readers. We also recognize that a necessary skill in ministry is to develop an awareness of the emotions that some passages bring to the surface in our lives and hold those in tension with the academic exercise of interpreting and presenting these ancient texts to a modern world. Readers need to be alert to how this passage may affect you personally, as well as, how the exam’s responses address the emotions that this story may have raised in the candidate’s life and in the hypothetical lives of the participants in the Bible study. More than some other exegesis exams, this is an exam where pastoral care and sensitivity needs to be demonstrated throughout the responses but especially in the Section III application. We also expect pastoral care and sensitivity to be demonstrated in reader’s comments.
The PCC takes the raising of such sensitive matters very seriously while also recognizing that not everyone will agree as to when or even if including them within the context of the standard ordination exams is appropriate.
There are several logistical reasons why it is not possible in this case to provide an alternative Exegesis exam during the current testing cycle. At the point when concerns were communicated to the PCC on Monday, January 30, approximately a third of the writing period for the Exegesis exam had already passed and readers had begun their training relating to the specific questions of this test. Because readers are only available during the specific dates assigned for exam evaluations (the reading week of February 6-10), it is not possible to set a new set of starting and submission deadlines for the test that would extend beyond that period.
Recognizing, however, that this particular exam has raised a level of concern that has not been expressed relating to previous Exegesis exams dealing with scriptural passages presenting extreme violence or other exams addressing issues of sexual trauma, the PCC Executive Committee has approved the following action:
If any candidate is unable to complete the Winter 2023 Bible Exegesis exam because of the passage that is assigned, the PCC will automatically enroll them for the Spring 2023 Bible Exegesis exam without additional registration fees.
Because there are always some candidates who simply do not submit exams for any number of reasons (as is already the case in this cycle with exams in other areas past their submission deadlines), a request for this deferral will need to be sent to Tim Cargal, who administers the exam program on behalf of the PCC, so that these special registrations can be processed. The communication of that request may come either from the candidate or the candidate’s presbytery.
All communications of concern sent to the PCC are being gathered and will be reviewed and discussed by the full membership of the PCC during its Annual Meeting in March. In keeping with the denomination’s policies relating to open meetings, arrangements will be made for those who wish to observe those deliberations.
XXXX Moderator, PCC
XXXX, PCC Bible Exams Task Group
UPDATE: I would love to direct everyone to the pastoral and compassionate response of the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney. It can be found HERE.