Phil Haslanger is pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wisconsin. He spent most of his adult life working as a journalist for The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, and he still writes a monthly column there on the intersection of faith and politics.
His life has straddled those worlds of religion and politics for a long time and Sojourners has been a source of both inspiration and challenge to him over the decades. As a journalist, he served as president of the National Conference of Editorial Writers (now the Association of Opinion Journalists) in 2002 and is currently a board member for the Religion News Service.
He was ordained in the United Church of Christ in 2007 and is active in state and regional denominational activities. In the Madison area, he has been particularly active in interfaith work, interracial work and mobilizing faith communities around issues of domestic violence.
He is married to Ellen Reuter, a spiritual director and artist, and he has four grown children scattered from coast to coast.
Posts By This Author
Preaching About Domestic Violence Is Hard — But We Must
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.
Job Knew What It's Like to Feel Trapped
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.
What I Learned from My Time in Solitary
I started this year in solitary confinement.
It’s not that I am regularly in prison or that I had behaved so badly. I was simply in a mock solitary cell located in the sanctuary of a church. I was only there for an hour. I knew I would be getting out.
But that hour did offer a glimpse into the world of how solitary confinement is used – and abused – in our nation’s prisons. And it offered a glimpse at the reform efforts that are gaining steam all across the country, including in my home state of Wisconsin.
When Kate Edwards, a Buddhist chaplain who has worked in the Wisconsin prison for the past five-and-half years, closed the door behind me, I was alone, but hardly in silence.
Wearing Black in Advent
On a Sunday when the dominant color in Christian churches is pink — a symbol of joy for the third Sunday of Advent — I was wearing a black shirt, black pants, and a blue tie. Others in our congregation were wearing various combinations of black or blue.
This was a modest way of showing solidarity with African Americans and a reminder that “Black Lives Matter” while still showing empathy for the police in the Madison, Wisconsin, area who have worked hard over the years to have a diverse force that works to serve rather than dominate the varied racial and ethnic communities that exist here.
But even with a nod to the pressure police are under these days, the dominant focus was on the series of killings of unarmed black people. And we know that not all police departments have made the same efforts that have happened here over a generation — and that our police departments are not perfect either.
The movement to wear black on December 14 came from several African-American denominations across the nation. Here in Wisconsin, Rev. Scott Anderson, Executive Director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, joined faith leaders in urging people to wear black to church on that Sunday.
The Emptiness of Gun Violence
The empty shoes came in all shapes and sizes — cowboy boots and sneakers, children’s sparkly shoes and women’s dress shoes. They filled step after step going up toward the entrance of the Wisconsin State Capitol.
The shoes — 467 pair of them — represented the death toll from guns in just one state: Wisconsin.
"I want you to look at these empty shoes," Jeri Bonavia, told the crowd gathered on the Capitol steps on Monday. "I want you to bear witness. All across our state, families are aching with emptiness."
Bonavia is the executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, which is using this display of empty shoes in five cities around the state this week.
In the nationwide scheme of things, Wisconsin has a lower death rate from guns than the nation as a whole. The annual average of 467 from murder, suicide and accidents is just a fraction of the approximately 30,000 gun deaths each year across the U.S.
And yet the row upon row of empty shoes on the steps spoke to the heartache that comes with each death, whatever the toll in whatever state.
On Domestic Violence, the Church Has a Long Way to Go
I thought at first that it was a fictional scene, conflating in one example some of the problems those of us in Christianity face when confronted with issues of domestic violence. The scene was set up as a call to rethink how we articulate our theology in areas like sacrifice and forgiveness and commitment and gender roles.
Here’s what I wrote in The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., that was posted on Sunday:
“A woman has been suffering physical abuse at the hands of her husband. She finally summons up the courage to talk to her pastor about it.
“His advice: First, you need to recognize that your suffering is like Jesus’ suffering. Next, you need to forgive like Jesus forgave. Then remember that you made a commitment to marry this man for life. He is the head of your family, so you need to make sure you are doing what he wants so as not to trigger his anger.
“And then an offer: Let me meet with the two of you and help you patch up your marriage.”
I described it as a fictional scenario. And then I heard this from a friend: “that was the response from my minster regarding my first husband 30 years ago ...”
I’d like to think that many pastors these days are a least a bit wiser both theologically and practically in how they deal with someone facing domestic violence. That’s reflected in a groundbreaking survey released last week by Sojourners at The Summit: World Change Through Faith & Justice.
I’ve recently been thinking a lot about failure.
Not my failures, though I suspect we could come up with a few.
No, I’ve thinking about Scott Walker’s failed governorship in Wisconsin.
And Barack Obama’s failed presidency in the nation.
And our failed foreign policy.
And the failed Affordable Care Act.
And Walker’s failed jobs policy for the Badger State. And so on.
Then I started thinking about the failure of our political dialogue these days.
Capital Punishment and the Power of Art
The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on Tuesday has refocused the nation on the inherent contradictions in the death penalty. But here in Wisconsin last week, an opera helped focus the attention of one community on the many human issues woven into the debate over crime and punishment.
In real life at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, a mix of lethal drugs injected into the body of Lockett caused seizures rather than immediate death. On stage in the opera version of Dead Man Walking, the drug machine clicks, hums, and whirrs with efficiency, leaving the fictional character Joe DerRocher dead on the stage.
Dead Man Walking — the book by Sr. Helen Prejean about her work with prisoners on death row and the families of their victims — became an award-winning movie in the mid-1990s starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It was recreated as an opera in 2000 and since then has played in 40 cities.
What happened in Madison, Wis., last week was more than the presentation of an opera. It was the culmination of six weeks of some 20 events engaging about 1,500 community members in discussion of many facets of the criminal justice system. The two performances of the opera itself drew about 3,000 people. It was a classic example of art engaging life.
Capital punishment itself is not so much of an issue in Wisconsin – the state has banned it since 1853. But Wisconsin does have the highest rate of black male incarceration in the nation. Its prison system tilts far more toward punishment than toward treatment and rehabilitation. It imprisons twice as many people as its neighboring and demographically similar state of Minnesota.
Can We Be a Society of Second Chances?
For most folks, these names will not mean much: Eric Pizer, Christopher Barber, and Andrew Harris.
They are names that may have a bit resonance in Wisconsin, where I am from. What they represent, though, are the struggles we face as a society dealing with concepts of repentance and redemption. They represent the way those concepts get overrun by politicians seeking to exploit the public’s fears. We as a people, after all, do not seem to be in a very forgiving mood these days.
So the distinctive stories of these three Wisconsin residents might offer a good starting point for Christians thinking about what our faith tradition calls us to during this season of Lent.
Creating a Port in a Storm of Domestic Violence
I had a chance to play the role of Bad Pastor Phil last week.
The occasion was a conference at St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison, Wis. called “Your Congregation: A Port in the Storm for a Victim of Domestic Violence.” Bad Pastor Phil did not provide a very good port in the storm.
The group of people from some 25 parishes and congregations in the greater Madison area had just witnessed a squirm-inducing scene where Sam came home from work the day after he had hit his wife, Mary. She had prepared his favorite meal, hoping she could make him happy.
Nothing could make Sam happy, of course, other than feeling that he was totally in control of Mary. So he demeaned her, ordered her around, threw the drink of imaginary Scotch and water she had prepared for him across the room, and finally stomped out of the house.
Sam was played by Darald Hanusa of the Midwest Domestic Violence Resource Center, a social work therapist with three decades of experience treating men who batter women. Mary was played by Terry Hoffman, who earlier in the day told a gripping story of the real-life abuse she experienced at the hands of her now former husband.
So now Sam and Mary were on their way to see their pastor. We have a problem communicating, they told me. Sam said it was all Mary’s fault. Mary tried to explain that she was trying to do the best she could, but I asked her what she was doing that was pushing Sam’s anger buttons. She tried to reply, but I kept turning the conversation back to Sam.
I reminded Mary that in the New Testament of the Bible, there were two letters from Paul that said a wife should be submissive to her husband. I ignored the fear that was all over her face.
I was acting out the role that all too often churches have played in real life. Perhaps they are not as crude as I portrayed it, but getting faith-based communities to focus on domestic violence is a growing theme these days.
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