by Anne O. Weatherholt
She is sitting near you or singing in the choir, possibly in the pew or chair in front of or behind you. He is sitting across the aisle or maybe serving as an usher. She is economically well off or perhaps she earns an average income. Maybe this is you. He is a well-respected member of society or maybe he is your priest. There are victims of domestic abuse all around you in church. So when the sermon is about forgiveness, when the topic of the day is reconciliation or the sanctity of marriage or the family, and there is no mention of the reality of abuse, they do not hear “good news.” They only hear that they are to go back into the situation where they are battered—emotionally, financially, spiritually and maybe physically, and that the church they love is unaware of their pain.
It has taken a scandal rocking the world of professional football to peel back the thick layer of denial that stifles our awareness. We want everyone in church to be okay. We assume that, because they are in church, for the most part everyone IS okay. As the victims look around, they think they are alone, the only one who is afraid to go home. There is a conspiracy of silence that infects both church and society, and this silence amounts to complicity with those who are abusers, who use power and control in manipulative ways to dominate and intimidate their intimate partners. Three of every five persons around you have experienced domestic abuse, are in abusive situations, or have a family member being abused. They are hidden in plain sight.
Domestic abuse is not new. It has been around since Cain killed Abel. It is in every society and culture in the world. It is across all economic and social layers. The Hebrew Scriptures have some particularly hair-raising “texts of terror” including the rape of Tamar (II Sam 13:1-22) and the abuse of the unnamed concubine (Judges 19). In this second narrative, the estranged husband vows to “speak tenderly to her and bring her back,” when she has taken refuge in her father’s house. The father delays their departure for five days. When they do set out one evening, they no sooner reach a city when Levite offers his concubine to a mob who beats and rapes her until she dies. So much for “speaking tenderly”!
For those who are familiar with the cycle of violence, this pattern is only too familiar. During the so-called “honeymoon” phase, which follows a critical incident, the abuser promises to reform, may even begin counseling, and is apparently sorry for the abuse. The victim, eager for a way out and intimidated or exhausted from trying to placate the abuser, is ready to believe that things could get better; only they seldom change. Most persons who finally leave an abusive relationship have tried to leave up to nine or more times. Leaving is a difficult option. It means economic hardship, facing the stigma of separation or divorce, difficult issues of child custody, and it is the point in the cycle when abusers become most violent. Women most often are murdered by their intimate partners just after they have left; some are run off the road, shot in parking lots or murdered leaving work. Just today three women in the United States will die at the hands of their intimate partner. Children are caught in this battleground, held as emotional or literal hostages, and a person leaving an abusive relationship may feel that there is no safe place to go. If the family is undocumented or there is any criminal record for a spouse, the barriers are even greater to finding safe refuge.
So what can the Church and faithful believers do? The simple answer is A LOT! Begin with a deliberate decision to break the silence. Provide education about domestic violence, especially about the myths that prevent action. There are resources listed below that provide a good place to begin. Contact your local provider for domestic abuse services (if you don’t know where to begin, try nnedv.org) and form a partnership with a local shelter. Publish their hotline phone number in your bulletin or newsletter. Make sure to post it in bathrooms (yes, even in the men’s room) and on bulletin boards. Place literature about domestic violence in your church library and have pamphlets handy in tract racks or tables. Start a drive for supplies to donate to your local domestic violence shelter (ask your provider what they need). This has the dual result of helping those who are fleeing violent homes and signaling to everyone in your church that there is local assistance.
For clergy: Parse the words of your sermons carefully when referring to issues of forgiveness and domestic harmony. Those who study the totality of Scripture recognize that forgiveness must have an element of justice attached to it, as well as a link to the responsibility of the people who are citizens of God’s Kingdom to promote justice, mercy, and safety for all. Use qualifying phrases to let those experiencing abuse know that this is NOT God’s will for them and that help is available. If someone confides a situation of abuse, say you believe them. Refer, refer, refer. Seek a broad approach for support using local domestic violence agencies, law enforcement, school counselors, and websites. Observe Domestic Violence Awareness month in October, and use special prayers to remember victims. Educate your youth group about healthy dating and the cycle of abuse. Take advantage of the headlines about sports figures to begin a dialog about intimate partner violence and child abuse.
The door has been nudged open a crack, and who knows how long this news cycle will last? The silence surrounding domestic violence is a difficult wall of denial on the part of abusers and victims alike, and it is a subject that most people don’t want to talk about. But once the door is opened, be prepared for a flood of stories and the wonderful opportunity not just to help but to save lives.
Faith Trust Institute: resources, books, training materials, sermons, essays, videos. Faith Trust Institute is a national, multifaith, multicultural training and education organization with global reach working to end sexual and domestic violence.
Peace and safety in the Christian home: is a biblically based international network providing spiritual insights, practical resources and positive guidance to all who address domestic violence. Its outreach extends to victims, perpetrators, law enforcement, medical personnel, shelter workers, safe home providers, social workers, clergy, therapists and counselors. The primary emphasis is on God’s pattern of peace and safety in the home and on the deterrence of domestic violence and abuse.
Anne Weatherholt is Rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Lappans, Boonsboro, MD, and has been writing about Churches and Domestic Violence education and prevention for over twenty years. She serves as a workshop leader to train clergy and laity in Domestic Violence prevention and serves on the local board of a Domestic Violence shelter. She and her husband, the Rev. F. Allan Weatherholt, serve as volunteer State Police Chaplains
Books and publications by Anne Weatherholt:
Breaking the Silence: The Church Responds to Domestic Violence by The Rev. Anne Weatherholt, 2008; available from Amazon, on Kindle and from Morehouse Publishing.
Eleven Little Lies about Domestic Violence by The Rev. Anne Weatherholt, Forward Movement.
“20081123120727-violencia-de-genero” by Concha García Hernández – http://www.psicoterapeutas.com/paginaspersonales/concha/violenciadegenero.htm. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.