It’s hard to stand in front of a congregation and talk about domestic violence.

It’s hard, because you never really know the stories of the people sitting there.

Who might have experienced domestic violence in their lives, in their home growing up, in a relationship during high school, on a college campus, in the home where they now reside?

Who might have experienced it last night? Who might have been told by their mother or religious leader that they cannot leave an abusive marriage because they would be breaking their vows? Who might have struck out at a partner? Who might have let their needs for control overwhelm their sense of self-restraint? Who might want to mask their violence with a smile or generous donations?

It's hard to stand in front of a congregation and talk about domestic violence. But it’s essential.

It’s essential because too often in the past, religious traditions have been used to defend an abusive patriarchy, to bind victims to marriage commitments that are undermined by intimate violence, to encourage people to “offer up” suffering rather than change the conditions that cause it.

It’s essential because shining a light of the reality of domestic violence is a critical step in creating pathways to safety for those who are victims. It’s essential because speaking out about domestic violence as a violation of God’s love can give victims strength to seek a better way. It’s essential because naming domestic violence as evil can help call perpetrators to account – and perhaps to repentance and treatment.

There are growing efforts across the nation to open new possibilities of healing and accountability. Since the early 1990s, Boston-based Safe Havens has created interfaith responses to domestic violence. On the other coast, the FaithTrust Institute has been working on these issues with congregations of all faiths since the early 1980s. Rev. Charles Dohm created a model ministry for Catholics in the Chicago area. There are specific efforts for Jews and Muslims as well.

And Sojourners, of course, is working with seminaries across the country to equip faith leaders to respond effectively to sexual and domestic violence.

In the Midwestern community where I live – the greater Madison, Wisconsin area – faith communities across the religious spectrum have begun to elevate awareness of domestic violence within their congregations, even as the wider community has shone a brighter light on the realities and alternatives to violent relationships.

Faith leaders – Christian, Jewish, Muslim – have joined together to articulate publicly the need to protect victims and hold perpetrators accountable.

In an October 2014 column of our local newspaper, 40 faith leaders declared, “We want our congregations to be safe places for people experiencing abuse, and we want to help move the wider community to collective action to protect people facing domestic violence.”

Through sessions for faith leaders, workshops for teens, and initiatives to help men who are victims or who want to be allies with women facing abuse, this religious-based coalition has joined with service providers and law enforcement in trying to change the culture around domestic violence in our area.

And so we preach.

We say that while we take the commitments of marriage very seriously, those commitments may not be used as leverage to keep someone in an unsafe relationship.

We say that while we value forgiveness, that does not free anyone from the consequences of mistreating another.

We say that whatever understanding one has of the roles of spouses in a marriage, that does not give permission for one spouse to engage in violent or abusive behavior toward the other.

We preach because if we keep silent, if we ignore the human cost and spiritual degradation of domestic violence, then we are failing the people we are called to serve.

We preach because if we speak up, we can help transform the world, healing the wounds we see before us and bringing us closer to the kind of place I believe God intended for us to live in.

Photo provided by Phil Haslanger.

Phil Haslanger is pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. He recently received the 2015 Justice Award from the Wisconsin Governor's Council on Domestic Abuse. 

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