The Common Good
December 2013

Naming the Sin

by Michelle D. Bernard | December 2013

Are churches helping to stop domestic violence—or enabling it?

JULIE OWENS had no way of knowing that, within days of saying her marriage vows, she would become a victim of domestic violence. She grew up in a Christian home. Her father was a pastor. Her brother was a pastor. Her uncles were pastors. Her parents had a beautiful and enduring marriage. She was well educated. She was well traveled. And she was deeply in love.

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During her honeymoon, Julie quickly realized that her husband now believed he owned her, a belief that would soon be followed by verbal abuse and, toward the end of their marriage, physical abuse.

The abuse began with an irrational jealousy. Then the name-calling began, along with accusations of infidelity. He isolated her from her friends and family. He showed up at the school where she worked as a special education teacher to “check on her.” Later, he started taking the car keys away from her. He even cut the spark-plug wires in their car so that he would always know her whereabouts. He threw dishes at her, disconnected the phone in their rural home, and threatened to harm her, their pets, friends, and even their unborn baby.

Three months into the marriage, Julie knew that his behavior was not normal and the couple separated.

Over the course of the next three months, she went to marriage counseling while her husband went to substance-abuse counseling. In search of help, she spoke with counselors, pastors, and others—yet not one of them ever uttered the words “domestic violence.” Instead, she was told that her husband was dealing negatively with “stress” and that he was “acting out” because he was raised in an abusive family.

Julie believed what the experts told her.

Three months after they separated, her husband agreed, as a condition of their reuniting, to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and marriage counseling. This time, the couple moved in with Julie’s parents where she thought she would be safe. Their son was born a few months later and, for a while, things seemed better. Then they got worse.

Julie and her husband were together for eight months after the birth of their first and only child. They separated again. This time Julie filed for divorce. After she did so, both she and her father nearly lost their lives.

One evening when Julie arrived home, her husband ambushed her and savagely beat her. He stabbed her in the stomach, then attacked her father, stabbing him through his eyebrows.

The following Sunday, Rev. Owens stood at the pulpit of their church, bearing 40-plus stiches on his face. He describes his sermon that morning as less of a sermon and more of an “open, honest statement of need ... because I wanted them [his parishioners] to know that their pastor was hurting; that their pastor’s wife was hurting; that their daughter had been violently attacked ... that I had also been assaulted by my son-in-law and [the family was] vulnerable ... and hurting.” After that sermon, women from the church opened up, relieved that they could finally talk about the acts of domestic violence occurring in their own homes.

Since then, Julie and her father have dedicated their lives to social justice ministries and actively speaking out about the Christian response to family violence and violence against women.

THE U.S. DEPARTMENT of Justice defines domestic violence as “a pattern of abusive behavior in any relationship that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner. Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that intimidate, manipulate, humiliate, isolate, frighten, terrorize, coerce, threaten, blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.”

According to Rev. Owens, “a lot of the pastoral counseling that is given is more hurtful than helpful because so many pastors have wanted to preserve the marriage at all costs, and they have been quick to tell abused women that they should stay in the abusive relationship because ... God hates divorce.” But, Rev. Owens unequivocally states, “God hates abuse even more than divorce.”

The kind of pastoral counseling and misinterpretation of biblical teaching that advises victims to submit to their abuser is as prevalent today as it was 40 years ago. According to Dr. Michele Balamani Silvera, an ordained minister, licensed psychotherapist, and author of Dancing on Our Graves: Healing the Hearts and Souls of Women, “Keeping families intact is connected to the economic interest and identity of the church.” Moreover, Silvera says, “one of the key problems here is that there are many churches that are emotionally abusive, so recognizing signs of such abuse in the relationships of their members is all the more difficult.”

Jessica Moser would agree. Another survivor of domestic violence, she was unable to find any refuge in her church. Moser suffered verbal abuse and, like in Julie Owens’ case, it surfaced during her honeymoon. It escalated quickly to a level that caused Moser to fear going home at night. The couple was together for a year when Moser asked her then-husband to leave their marital home.

At the time, her husband served in their church. This fact alone made it even more difficult for anyone at her church to recognize, let alone believe, that Moser could be a victim of domestic violence. Even the counselor at the Christian counseling center where they sought help was uneducated about domestic violence, treating her for “boundary issues” and her husband for “anger management issues.”

Consequently, Moser reached out to her church’s leadership. Again, woefully unaware of the dynamics of domestic violence, she found no help there either. Verbal abuse was considered a “normal” relationship issue. The Christians from whom she sought help had only one goal in mind: reconciliation.

After several years and many attempts to reconcile, Moser chose to end her marriage. As a Christian, this was a particularly difficult decision to make because of a fear that she would be “condemned by the law of the Bible” when she left her marriage. It was nearly impossible for her to get from her church the support she needed to move forward.

Catherine Clark Kroeger, founder of Christians for Biblical Equality and Peace and Safety in the Christian Home, recognized that most pastors don’t intend for harm to come to their parishioners. “Many well-meaning evangelical shepherds do not have enough training to recognize and appropriately respond to situations of abuse,” and seminaries don’t train for this. “Inadequate clergy responses may harm families and drive victims away from the very communities whom God calls to offer compassion and effective assistance,” Kroeger believed. “The unwillingness of many to face this reality results in denying, concealing, minimizing, or ignoring sinful injustice.”

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE DOES not discriminate. Tricia Bent-Goodley, author of The Ultimate Betrayal: A Renewed Look at Intimate Partner Violence, explains that no data suggests that domestic violence occurs more frequently or infrequently among people of faith; nor is there any data as to whether churches with a conservative theology have a higher or lower incidence of domestic violence within their churches, because working with the faith-based community to address domestic violence is relatively new.

 “What we do know,” says Bent-Goodley, “is that faith can be used to cope and to find the strength and resolve to leave an abusive relationship. Unfortunately, and too often, religious leaders use religion and spirituality to reinforce staying in abusive relationships.”

Increasingly, churches are starting domestic-violence ministries, says Bent-Goodley. She emphasizes that these ministries “are powerful symbols and organizing entities in churches. If there is support, I encourage churches to consider creating that option to give focused attention to this issue.” When domestic abuse is suspected, she states, “it is important to connect with professionals to create a safety plan.”

Deborah K. Webb is chaplain at Washington Hospital Center and St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. She estimates that 75 percent of the domestic-violence cases she has handled involve shootings and stabbings.

Washington Hospital Center’s trauma unit employs a multidisciplinary approach, including chaplains as part of the team. When a victim survives an attack and wants to talk, Webb often starts by discussing the meaning of life with them and asking what their goals are. The conversation normally goes on to include a discussion about their faith tradition.

Catherine DeLoach Lewis runs Christian Therapy Services in Charlotte, N.C. A licensed and board-certified Christian counselor, she also provides domestic-violence training for churches interested in learning how to help adult victims of domestic violence.

She tells the story of a woman whose husband and abuser was a church pastor. When this woman sought help, she was told that her primary concern should be that of her husband’s reputation and the reputation of his church.

There are many other stories about the church leaders who ask the victim what she did to provoke the abuse or ask what would have happened if she had “submitted” to her husband. Matters are often worse if the abuser is a pastor or involved in the hierarchy of the church.

It is for this reason that Lewis works to “meet churches where they are” and to approach her work from a neutral standpoint. She does not engage in theological discussions with her clients or with clergy about whether a victim should separate or leave her husband. Rather, she looks at all matters of domestic violence through the lens of safety because, as Lewis says, “God wants [victims of domestic violence] to be safe.” According to Lewis, if a victim or a pastor looks at the abuse through this lens, confusion about these deep theological questions “falls away.”

Lewis has developed an innovative domestic-violence guide to be used as a “screening and resource tool” to help those who have had little training in domestic violence to “help a victim decide who she needs to contact and what she needs to do for her safety.” Called the Continuum of Christian Care for Adult Victims of Domestic Violence (p. 24), the guide uses the colors formerly used by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to advise the public about terrorist alerts to “correspond to a similar risk the victim may be experiencing when being verbally or physically abused by her partner.”

The resource guide expressly tells members of the clergy: “[A survivor] has shown great courage in sharing her story with you. Listen and believe her.”

In fact, survivors and allies say that the most effective way to interrupt domestic violence is to “listen and believe.” Bent-Goodley says this is even more critical in communities of color because “women of color turn to their faith community for help before going to domestic violence and other formal providers. This makes the responsibility of churches even more important. [A church] can literally be the difference between life and death. Knowing the signs for lethality or serious physical violence really does save lives. Listen and believe. It starts there.”

Those who recognize that churches need to do more in addressing domestic violence within their ministries agree that three things are critical. First, members of the clergy must recognize “the sin of abuse.” Second, domestic violence must be addressed from the pulpit. Congregants must hear and understand that the Bible condemns all forms of abuse, whether physical, verbal, emotional, or sexual. Third, pastors must urge victims to do whatever is necessary to keep themselves and their children safe.

In Strengthening Families and Ending Abuse, Amy Rasmussen Buckley recounts the biblical story of the many-husbanded Samaritan woman Jesus met at Jacob’s well:

Far from ostracizing the Samaritan woman, Jesus invites her to drink water that promises to quench her deepest longings ... Jesus addressed the human need for spiritual water. He wanted the woman to recognize her thirst in the desert of disappointment, shame, anger, loneliness, and pain ... Jesus’ relationship with the Samaritan woman offers a portrait of God’s care for wrongfully judged and marginalized people. He leaves a number of footprints for us to follow as we minister his presence to hurting, broken people including the victims of abuse.

If churches can take the necessary steps to address domestic violence, then there is hope for stopping it in its tracks. Buckley believes that abuse survivors, like the runaway slave Hagar, who received miserable treatment at the hands of “pious and religious people,” may be amazed to realize that they are not alone after all. “In their most trying hours,” says Buckley, “they may discover the Lord whispering to them by name.” 

Michelle D. Bernard is the CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics, and Public Policy and author of Moving America Toward Justice: The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, 1963-2013. Gaebrielle Jade McIntosh and Monique Pressley assisted with research.

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