The story of Job is one of the literary classics in the Bible. It is a story that tries to sort out why bad things happen to good people. It is a story that tries to make sense out of suffering. It is a story that concludes with an epic confrontation between Job and God. And it is a story that captures the isolation, the misunderstanding, and the feelings of abandonment.
Job’s friends and his wife are convinced that it is Job’s sin that has led to his misfortunes. That has a familiar ring to people trapped in violent and abusive relationships. “Why did you make him mad?” friends ask. “Why don’t you just leave?”
And inside the relationship, the abuser often threatens even greater harm if the victim tells anyone about what is happening. And if the victim decides to leave, the risk of violence increases, often with lethal consequences.
As Job said of God, “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him…If only I could vanish in darkness and thick darkness would cover my face!” (Job 23:8-9, 17)
Victims of domestic violence – both women and men as well as children – often feel isolated, abandoned by family and friends who are uncomfortable or afraid of the topic, trapped by religious traditions that stress male dominance and the indissolubility of marriage and feel forgotten by God. Job knew that feeling.
I have spent quite a bit of time over the past few years dealing with issues of domestic violence, particularly with the role that faith communities can play in creating safe spaces and engaging the wider community in changing the cultural norms around domestic violence.
It seems to me that we in church communities have a special role in addressing domestic violence.
In far too many churches, abusers justify their violence by saying that wives were supposed to submit to their husbands. They apparently missed the next verse in the letter to the Colossians that says, “Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly” (3:19).
The value that churches place on the sanctity of marriage can blind people to the undermining of marriage by violence. Even the Catholic bishops – no slouches when it comes to defending marriage – have said very clearly in a 2002 statement two important things: “As bishops, we condemn the use of the Bible to support abusive behavior in any form…We emphasize that no person is expected to stay in an abusive marriage.”
Churches can trap victims by talking about the imperative of forgiveness and the deeper meaning of suffering. Both forgiveness and suffering are important concepts in our lives, but should never be used to get in the way of seeking safety.
Let’s go back to Job for a minute. His life had taken a very bad turn. He tried to maintain his faith in God, but it got harder and harder. Finally, he launches a powerful rant to God. He does not suffer in silence. He demands answers.
Elie Wiesel, the great Jewish writer who survived the Holocaust and knew at the core of his being what it is to suffer, wrote in his reflection on the story of Job: “Once upon a time in a far-away land, there lived a legendary man, a just and generous man who, in his solitude and despair, found the courage to stand up to God. And to force Him to look at His creation.”
People who feel abandoned by God, whether because of domestic violence or any other reason, completely have the right to rant at God. And they have the right to expect that those of us who call ourselves Christians will be there to be the face of God, the hands of God in their lives.
That’s what Jesus was talking about in the story from Mark 10:35-45. It’s a conversation about both power and service.
Power is absolutely central when thinking about issues of domestic violence. People who abuse and batter their partners are not simply losing their tempers. They are not simply having a bad day. They are seeking to exercise power and control over someone with whom they should be having a loving relationship.
Remember those famous words from the apostle Paul? “Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
Any one of us who have been in long-term loving relationships know that there are days we are better at living that way than others. But people who physically and emotionally abuse their partners are not just having a bad day. They are using whatever tactics or weapons they have available—coercion and threats, intimidation or isolation, economic abuse or using children—to exercise power and control over their partner.
None of these show up in Paul’s list of what it means to be loving. None of these can be condoned by a faith community that claims to follow Jesus. None of these can be condoned by the wider society that seeks equity and justice.
Fortunately, in faith communities and in wider society, the attitudes are changing, but only in increments. Professional football has become the litmus test for how our nation is dealing with domestic violence. Last year, it was Ray Rice from the Baltimore Ravens, notoriously knocking out his fiancé in an elevator. He is not playing pro football this season – at least not so far.
Last year, Greg Hardy played for the Carolina Panthers, but missed most of the season after being convicted of assaulting his former girlfriend.
Scott Simon on NPR described what happened: “Greg Hardy’s former girlfriend testified that the 6-foot-4, 279 pounds NFL franchise player threw her into a bathtub, dragged her by her hair, hurled her onto a futon covered with weapons, and locked his hands around her throat.”
But that’s only part of the story. Hardy and the woman reached an out-of-court settlement and the conviction was dropped. So the Dallas Cowboys signed him over the off-season, and now he is playing professional football again as if nothing happened.
Terry Bradshaw, a former star quarterback and now a commentator on ESPN, minced no words in stating: “Anybody, in my opinion, that lays a hand on a woman — I don’t care who you are, my friend — you never come back in this league.”
The NFL is making some noise about domestic violence. But Scott Simon reminds us of these facts: “This year alone, 6 NFL players have been arrested for domestic violence and 1 for sexual battery.”
And athletes still are considered role models. They are looking for those seats of glory in our world. So now back to the story of Jesus in the gospel of Mark.
James and John, Zebedee’s sons, wanted seats of glory with Jesus. So Jesus then asks, can you live the way I am living, can you die the way I am going to die? Sure, they answer.
And the other 10 disciples start getting jealous. How come James and John get the good seats? They whine, sort of missing the whole point of what Jesus had just said.
This is not a power game, he tells them. It’s not about exerting power and control over others. “Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant…the Human One (that’s Jesus) didn’t come to be served but rather to serve and to give his life to liberate many people” (Mark 10:43,45).
There’s the challenge to us as a community and as individuals. We are called to speak up and to reach out.
We are called to speak up so those trapped in violent relationships know that they are not alone, so that perpetrators of violence know that they will have no defense in this sanctuary, and so that the nation knows that the days of tolerating violence within relationships is over.
And we are called to reach out so that those hoping for a safer place for themselves and their children know there are people with them on that journey—that they can experience the love of God in the hands that reach out to them in their moments of need.