REL 617 / Theology, Gender, & Violence

Course Overview

“Violence doesn’t have a race, a class, a religion, or a nationality,” writes Rebecca Solnit, “but it does have a gender.” The “gendered” nature of violence, the way that patterns of violence so often reflect constructed norms of sexual identity, has been garnering more and more public attention in recent years. In this seminar, students will approach these patterns as a form of social sin—a foundational concept for contemporary theological ethics. In particular, they will explore the ways that theological reflection might itself participate in or resist broader cultures of violence. They will do so from two angles: first by examining the gender norms implicit in our core theological sources and vocabulary, and second by examining the explicit theological construction of gender. In conversation with classic and contemporary works of feminist and womanist theology in particular, students will consider how certain theological formulations might serve as cultural support for gendered violence, and how we might revise those formulations in response.

Class Goals

By the end of the term, students will be able to:

  1. explain the idea of “cultural violence” and how theology can contribute to it;
  2. identify and describe major points at which recent academic theologians have seen theology as implicated in gendered cultural violence; and
  3. give their own account of how to respond to such critiques theologically.

Class Requirements

In this class, students will be required to:

Semester in Outline

The term is divided into three major parts.

  1. During weeks 1–3, we will concentrate on defining violence and gender, focusing particularly on how theology plays into both.
  2. During weeks 4–6, we will explore gender norms implicit in the biblical narrative and in the language we use for God, interrogating the ways those norms tacitly support gendered violence.
  3. During weeks 7–12, we will explore important features of traditional theological constructions of femininity, masculinity, and human sexuality, asking again how those constructions tacitly support gendered violence.

Books to Buy

You don’t strictly need to buy anything. Everything should be available in PDF or on reserve at the library. But it may be convenient to buy the following books, which we will read more or less in full:

Both are available in the bookstore.

Class Policies

Class Discussion

Some of the material we will be dealing this semester will be emotionally and psychologically difficult for some students. If you ever feel the need to step out of class, you may do so without academic penalty. You will still be responsible for any material you miss, however, so please make arrangements to see me individually if you leave the room for any significant amount of time. In general, I welcome discussion about your personal reactions to the material as an appropriate part of our coursework.

It will also be important to be sensitive to the way our individual contributions to class discussions affect those around us. I therefore ask you to adopt the following guidelines during our time together:

  1. We will listen to one another patiently and carefully, assuming that each one of us is always doing the best that she or he can. And because we assume this about each other, each of us will do the best that we can.
  2. We will speak thoughtfully, and in the first person.
  3. We will address our colleagues in our classroom by name.
  4. We will own our assumptions, our conclusions, and their implications.
  5. We will be open to each other’s intellectual growth and change.
  6. We will not blame each other for the misinformation we have been taught and/or have absorbed, but we will hold each other accountable for repeating misinformation after we have learned otherwise.
  7. We will combat stereotypes actively and conscientiously so that we can help eradicate the biases that prevent us from envisioning and realizing the well-being of all.

Attendance and Participation

The semester is short and discussion is paramount for our work together, so you are expected to be present and active in every class session. Unexcused absences will result in the automatic loss of a half-letter grade (e.g., from an H to an H-, or from an H- to an HP+). Participation is not a formal part of your grade, but is expected and will be taken into account when considering borderline final marks.

Personal Electronics

Laptops, tables, and cell phones may not be used in class. All the data continues to suggest that we remember better when taking notes by hand, and taking computers off the table makes it much easier to cultivate the friendships necessary to make our conversations fruitful. If you have special circumstances that require the use of a computer, please see me about it early in the semester.

Overdue Assignments

I will accept late writing assignments, since part of the goal is simply to provide you an opportunity to synthesize the material we’ve dealt with in class. But since the other part of the goal is to prepare you for class discussion, it will be impossible to receive full marks for a late assignment. Late journal entries will not be able to achieve more than a check- minus, and late community reflections will start from a maximum possible grade of an H-. I will grant exceptions for personal emergencies, or for students who speak to me at least one week prior to the due date about an expected late assignment.


If you have a disability and anticipate needing accommodations in this course, please come see me early in the semester or as soon as you become aware of your need. If you have not yet done so, you will first need to speak with someone in the Resource Office on Disabilities. They will work with you confidentially to find a set of accommodations that will allow you to fully engage in all your courses.

Academic Integrity

You should familiarize yourself with the standards of academic integrity YDS expects its students to uphold. Violations of those standards, whether intentional or inadvertent, will be reported to the Dean’s office and dealt with strictly.

Inclusive Language

I expect you always to use inclusive language when you are discussing human beings. That is, say “people” instead of “men,” “he or she” instead of just “he,” “brothers and sisters” instead of just “brothers,” and so on. At this point, this is a matter of basic English: the masculine no longer functions as a universal descriptor.

When talking about God, you may use whatever pronouns or images you prefer. During class discussions, always strive to be aware of how your choice of language will come across to your classmates, who may be in a different situation, have different commitments, or stand in different relations to the material than you do.

Because we will explicitly address the issue of gendered language for God in this course, you should be prepared to be open and articulate about your reasons for speaking the way you do. You are free to speak as you choose, but your decisions will not be beyond critique.


The assignments for this course are designed to help you practice writing as a way of thinking. Writing is not just something we do after making up our minds; we can also write to discover connections, clarify intuitions, hone arguments. We can write for ourselves as well as for other people.

Reading Journal [15%]

Every week, by midnight the night before class, you will make an entry in your reading journal in response to a prompt I provide.

In a reading journal, we write for ourselves. The prompt will require you to identify central connections between the texts we’ve read and our goals in class. I will also encourage you to note connections with projects you have outside of class.

Keeping an open journal for your major projects is an excellent habit to develop. It gives you a space to record and think through those minor epiphanies that don’t have immediate application—i.e., in our case, that won’t make it into your other papers. Also, if you’ve had to put a project down for a while, reading through your journal is a quick way to remind yourself of the work you’ve done.

Grading: I will grade your journals on a simple check, check-minus, zero scale. Full credit requires only that you keep up with your journal and put some thought into it. Late entries are allowed (since if you’ve forgotten to keep up with your journal, it’s still good to go back and jot down some notes about the material), but cannot earn more than a check-minus (since you will have missed the chance to think through your impressions while it was all still fresh).

Mechanics: I prefer to receive all assignments electronically, in a form easy for you to archive and preserve for yourself. We will discuss the most convenient way of submitting all your assignments on the first day of class.

Community Watch Reflections [3 x 15%]

Three times during the semester, you will write a short reflection (roughly 1,000 words) drawing connections between our class discussions and current events.

Start taking note of discussions on campus, in your congregation, or in the media that deal with theology, gender, and violence. Keep a running list of bookmarks, copy a story into your reading journal, write down anecdotes as you come across them. We will make time to discuss some of these stories in class. Out of the stories that stick with you, reflect on how our theological conversations illuminate the events or vice versa. At least one of your reflections should focus on an event or story you want to affirm, and at least one on an event or story you want to critique. Since our primary readings will be conceptual in orientation, these assignments will help keep our conversations tethered to the concrete realities of gendered violence.

In these reflections, you are still writing primarily for yourself. You are beginning the work of applying the concepts we are wrestling with in class to the world around you. These should be more formal than your reading journals, but their purpose is still fundamentally exploratory. This is not a state-your-thesis-and-defend-it kind of paper. This exercise is meant to generate theses. I will give you more guidance and a rubric later in the semester.

Grading: These reflections will be graded on the H/H-/HP+/etc. system, but on a different set of criteria than a standard academic paper. Creativity and intellectual risk-taking will be preferred to tight argumentation (which comes later). I will not be concerned with matters of style or form. In the first of these papers, I will grade you and give you comments. In the second, I will do the same—but you will also grade and comment on yourself. In the third, finally, you will grade and comment on one another. The goal of this kind of assignment is to develop the habits of self-critique and constructive conversation with one another.

Mechanics: To keep you from binge-writing all of these at the end of the semester, and to encourage you to connect with a range of themes covered in class, due dates for these reflections will be staggered. The first reflection will be due on or before week five (Sept. 30), the second on or before week eight (Oct. 28), and the third on or before week eleven (Nov. 18). In each case, you can write on any theme already covered—not only those since the last reflection due date.

Theological Synthesis [40%]

By the end of the semester, you will choose one of your community watch reflections to develop into a 3,000-word synthetic essay, analyzing how theological concepts supported or resisted gendered violence and how they might have done otherwise.

Here we take a step towards writing for others, without going the full way. Looking back through your journals and your reflection papers, settle on a single idea that seems to you the clearest, most interesting, and most important. Where the community reflections were intentionally more exploratory and winding, your synthesis essay should be narrow and systematic. It should advance an argument. Your goal is to test whether your idea that initially seems clear, interesting, and important remains so after being subjected to rigorous analysis. (If it does, you are well prepared to think, at long last, about putting it in a form that others will understand and respond to.) In addition to the essay itself, therefore, you will also be required to append a short self-critique: having explored your idea further, what seem to you to be its strongest and weakest points?

Grading: Your synthesis will also be graded on the letter system, with much more focus on logical coherence and clarity of expression than was expected of the earlier papers. Again, a general rubric will be distributed later in the semester. Five percent of your grade will depend on the quality of your self-critique.

Mechanics: Your synthesis will be due on the final day of the semester, December 16.



In which we define our terms and our task.

Week 1 (9/2): Introduction

  • Journal: Think through your goals for the course, and write them down along with any specific questions you’re interested in being able to answer. Identify a few things you might be able to do to get you there.

Week 2 (9/9): The Idea of Cultural Violence

  • Read: Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research 6, no. 3 (1969): 167–91.
  • Read: Johan Galtung, “Cultural Violence,” Journal of Peace Research 27, no. 3 (1990): 291–305.
  • Read: Catia C. Confortini, “Galtung, Violence, and Gender: The Case for a Peace Studies/Feminism Alliance,” Peace & Change 31, no. 3 (July 2006): 333–67.
  • Read: Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, “Structural Violence as Structural Evil,” in Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2013), 49–50, 58–68, 71–78.
  • Journal: Write a short paragraph explaining the difference between direct and indirect violence, and the difference between both of these and cultural violence. Provide one or two quotes from the readings that best encapsulate these differences.

Week 3 (9/16): The Construction of Gender

  • Journal: Identify two or three ways (with representative quotes [and page numbers!]) that certain construals of embodiment, gender, or sexuality might be perceived as forms of cultural violence. (Note that you’re making the translation here. Isherwood might help spur your thinking, but Farley isn’t speaking directly in terms of violence.) As best you can, summarize the way Farley’s approach to these categories attempts to avoid such violence.
  • Read: Margaret Farley, “Sexuality and Its Meanings,” in Just Love: A Framework for Sexual Ethics (New York: Continuum, 2006), ch. 4. (65pp.)
  • Read: Lisa Isherwood, “The Violence of Gender: Christian Marriage as a Test Case,” in Weep Not for Your Children, edited by Lisa Isherwood and Rosemary Radford Ruether (London: Equinox, 2008), 54–64.

Constructing Theology

In which we consider two constituent parts of all Christian theological discourse, the Bible and the very names of God, in light of their possible implication in gendered violence.

Week 4 (9/23): Gender and Violence in the Bible

  • Journal: Pick the story that most strikes you, and reflect on the way that cultural violence works within it. What is the legitimating norm? How is it connected to a broader worldview? How is that norm invoked so as to cover over concrete processes or acts of violence?
  • Prepare: Come with two topic ideas for your first community watch reflection. (They can be in your head; you won’t be turning them in.) Think especially about the rubric I gave you, and about the themes we’ve already talked about: the basic idea of gender, of complementarity, about structural sin and structural evil, about the use of scriptural stories that that involve violence. Where have you noticed these things mattering in your own communities?
  • Read: Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984).

Week 5 (9/30): Names of God

  • Due: First community watch reflection
  • Journal: Why does Johnson prefer feminine symbols of God to the idea of feminine traits or dimensions? Would Ruether be content with Johnson’s argument?
  • Read: Elizabeth Johnson, “Feminist Theology and Critical Discourse about God” and “Basic Linguistic Options: God, Women, Equivalence” in She Who Is, 10th Anniversary Edition (New York: Herder & Herder, 2002), 17–57
  • Read: Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Sexism and God-Language: Male and Female Images of the Divine,” in Sexism and God-Talk (Boston: Beacon, 1983), 47–71

Week 6 (10/7): Christology

  • Journal: In the terms we’ve been developing, name two or three ways that Copeland is attempting to reposition Christology as a principle of “cultural peace”? In light of the critiques levelled by Hampson and reviewed by Storkey, is she convincing?
  • Read: Daphne Hampson, “Christology,” in Theology and Feminism (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 50–80. (Note: Hampson describes her position as “post-Christian,” and says earlier in this book, “I cannot believe of Jesus Christ that he is related to God in a way which is qualitatively different from that of all other human beings” [41]. This chapter unpacks that claim.)
  • Read: Elaine Storkey, “Who Is the Christ? Issues in Christology and Feminist Theology,” in Gospel and Gender, edited by Douglas Campbell (London: T&T Clark, 2003), 105–123.
  • Read: M. Shawn Copeland, “Marking the Body of Jesus, the Body of Christ,” in Enfleshing Freedom (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2010), 55–84.

Constructing Gender

In which we explore a major element in the classical constructions of femininity, masculinity, and sexuality that has been seen as implicated in a culture of violence.

Week 7 (10/14): Femininity (I)

  • Journal: Drawing from either Cooey or the story of Lucretia, identify a concrete way that “the patriarchal feminine” can function as a form of cultural violence.
  • Read: Elizabeth Johnson, “Cul-de-Sac: The Ideal Face of Woman” and “A Modest Proposal,” in Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (New York: Continuum, 2003), 47–70, 95–113.
  • Read: Serene Jones, “Women’s Experience between a Rock and a Hard Place: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Theologies in North America,” in Horizons in Feminist Theology, edited by Rebecca Chopp and Sheila Greeve Davaney (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 1997), 33–53.
  • Read: Paula Cooey, “Bad Women: The Limits of Theory and Theology,” in Horizons in Feminist Theology, 137–53.
  • Case: The rape of Lucretia. Read Livy, History of Rome, chs. 47–49; and Augustine, City of God I.16–20.

Reading Week: October 20–24

Week 8 (10/28): Femininity (II)

  • Due: Second community watch reflection
  • Journal: What new questions does Williams raise about the depiction of Mary?
  • Read: Delores Williams, “Hagar’s Story: A Route to Black Women’s Issues” and “Womanist-Feminist Dialogue: Differences and Commonalities,” in Sisters in the Wilderness (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993), 15–33, 178–203.
  • Read: M. Shawn Copeland, “Enfleshing Freedom,” in Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 23–53.
  • Read: Angela Davis, “Rape, Racism, and the Myth of the Black Rapist,” in Women, Race, & Class (New York: Random House, 1981), 172–201.
  • Case: Willie McGee and Willette Hawkins. Read Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance (New York: Vintage Books, 2010), 56–63.

Week 9 (11/4): Masculinity (I)

  • Journal: What does Boyd mean by men having “two selves” that are in conflict with one another, and what are the consequences of that conflict?
  • Read: bell hooks, “Understanding Patriarchy” and “Reclaiming Male Integrity,” in The Will to Change (New York: Atria Books, 2004), 17–33, 153–67.
  • Read: Stephen Boyd, “The Men We Have Become,” in The Men We Long To Be (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1995), 18–97.
  • Listen:Economy, Social Isolation May Be Driving Up Suicide Rates in Boomer Men,” a news story on NPR. [Transcript]

  • Recommended: Michael Kimmel, “Masculinity as Homophobia,” in The Gender of Desire (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2005), 25–42. [Available online]

Week 10 (11/11): Masculinity (II)

  • Journal: Drawing on any of our sources, reflect on the relationship between men’s violence and men’s sexuality.
  • Read: bell hooks, “Stopping Male Violence” and “Male Sexual Being,” in The Will to Change, 55–90.
  • Read: Michael Kimmel, “Pornography and Male Sexuality” (ch. 4), “Hard Issues and Soft Spots: Counseling Men about Sexuality” (ch. 8), and “Reducing Men’s Violence: The Personal Meets the Political” (ch. 14) in The Gender of Desire, 65–95, 139–48, 227–34. [Available online]
  • Case: Elliot Rodger and the Isla Vista shootings. Read “Elliot Rodger and Poisonous Ideals of Masculinity,” by Noah Berlatsky; and watch (or read the transcript of) Rodger’s threat video. (Warning: that video is sickening.)

Week 11 (11/18): Sexuality (I)

Thanksgiving Break: November 24–28

Week 12 (12/2): Sexuality (II)


Campus Resources

Since we will be dealing with a number of difficult issues this semester, you may find yourself needing to reflect on your own experiences beyond what is possible in class. If you find yourself wanting to talk, I encourage you to make an appointment at the Yale Mental Health & Counseling Department. It’s completely free, regardless of whether you’re under Yale’s insurance package.

The Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education (SHARE) Center is also an excellent resource for more specific questions about sexual violence. You can talk to an advocate at any time, day or night, by calling 203-432-2000. SHARE responders are trained mental health professionals, and know how to direct you to any other resources you might need.

Online Resources on Sexualized Violence